Friday, April 19, 2024

Early TSR Modules: A Study in Style


B1 In Search of the Unknown -- Classic dungeon crawl which was designed to train DMs in stocking and to some extent designing dungeons

D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth -- Classic dungeon crawl, loose continuing storyline if DM chooses to enhance

D2 The Shrine of the Kuo-Toa -- Classic dungeon crawl, loose continuing storyline if DM chooses to enhance

D3 Vault of the Drow -- Classic dungeon crawl, loose continuing storyline if DM chooses to enhance

G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief -- Storm/infiltrate the castle crawl, intro to storyline developed in subsequent modules if DM chooses

G2 The Glacial Rift of the Front Giant Jarl -- Classic dungeon crawl, loose continuing storyline if DM chooses to enhance

G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King -- Classic dungeon crawl, loose continuing storyline if DM chooses to enhance.

S1 Tomb of Horrors  -- Classic dungeon crawl (fun-house) representative of "killer dungeon", Tournament Module


S2 White Plume Mountain -- Funhouse dungeon crawl, tournament module

T1 Village of Hommlet -- First village based sandbox w/ small dungeon crawl, designed to lead into Temple of Elemental Evil which was never published in its original form. 


A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity -- Town exploration and dungeon crawl, tournament module, storyline leading into subsequent modules, tournament module

B2 Keep on the Borderlands D&D -- Classic dungeoncrawl with some internal dynamics which require DM elaboration

C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tomoachan -- Short Wilderness crawl with classic dungeon crawl, tournament module

C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness -- town intro to haunted house dungeon crawl, storyline background, tournament module

Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits -- Planar crawl/dungeoncrawl with culminating storyline from previous modules

S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks -- spaceship dungeoncrawl, tournament module, funhouse to a degree


A2 Secret of the Slavers Stockade -- Island hop to stockade assualt/dungeoncrawl, storyline continuing on from previous tournament module

A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords -- City/dungeoncrawl continuing storyline from previous  tournament modules.

A4 In the Dungeon of the Slave Lords -- Dungeoncrawl/escape, finishing storyline from previous tournament modules, some have continued this storyline into T series and then G and D series. 

B3 Palace of the Silver Princess D&D -- Classic dungeon crawl, story background

D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth -- Classic dungeoncrawl, with storyline continuing from G series.

G1-2-3 Against the Giants -- combine G1, G2 and G3.

I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City -- wilderness crawl with internal dynamics that players can develop with DM enhancement

L1 The Secret of Bone Hill -- Mini setting with wilderness and dungeon exploration available.

U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh -- Town/Haunted house crawl with storyline that continues in later modules

X1 The Isle of Dread D&D -- Mini setting wilderness crawl with island dynamics


B4 The Lost City D&D -- wilderness crawl dungeon crawl with internal dynamics and potential for DM storyline enhancement

I2 Tomb of the Lizard King -- wilderness hexcrawl, dungeoncrawl, internal story elements that DM can choose to enhance

I3 Pharoah -- Classic trap filled dungeon/crawl, internal story elements if DM chooses to enhance

N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God -- Village mini setting with some wilderness exploration and dungeon/crawl, storyline internally with a mystery element

S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth -- Classic wilderness/dungeoncrawl, internal story elements that DM can choose to enhance, tournament module

U2 Danger at Dunwater -- Sea crawl/dungeoncrawl, continuing storyline from previous module.

WG4 The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun -- A hasty production designed to be tied to previous storylines, generally a wilderness/dungeoncrawl

X2 Castle Amber D&D -- Planar castlecrawl, funhouse with internal story dynamics and a bit of mystery

X3 Curse of Xanathon D&D -- Town mystery adventuer

Subsequent Adventures that might be included:

EX1 Dungeonland

EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror

For their fun-house atmosphere.

Modules in blue have elements that presage later storydrive focus, but still retain elements of old school design.

Modules in yellow depart significantly from the norm in style or settling, either because they were rushed to press  (WG4), or made different assumptions than old school design.

While it is somewhat arbitrary, adventures after this period are increasingly story driven, mystery oriented and not what I would call "traditional" AD&D adventures. This does not mean they weren't good or well written. There are some award winning modules after this period such as Ravenloft, Assassin's Knot and others. However, with the advent of Tracy Hickman and others D&D began to be seen differently. The effort seems at delivering a preformed storyline, instead of background story elements that could be used to focus or expand upon. There was a mystery element with a central purpose of solving the mystery. Others, such as the UK series focus on not using violence to solve problems, and we begin to get large campaign style mega-modules that are de facto designed to carry PCs through an overarching storyline. 

While series such as A, G, D/Q did have a storyline connection and internal dynamics that could be utilized by PCs and DM alike, it was not the focus of the dungeon. One could get through the series and not have a strong sense of the unfolding story or dynamics. Many of the adventures were designed with the idea that the DMN would expand upon, flesh out, or focus on certain elements, effectively making the adventure their own. 

No, not all adventures after this period eschew dungecrawl, wildernesscrawl or old school sensibilities. It is a spectrum of course. But my point here is to illustrate that there was a distinct break in style of module creation pre Gary (which I mark at 1982/3) and post Gary. Again, this is not to say subsequent playstyles were bad. Long term story driven campaigns were represented all over old school gaming, but the principle design ethos was that DMs did that work, not game designers. This of course would change too.

And I should acknowledge that pre AD&D, adventure and world design was the particular province of the DMs as well, not designers. It said as much at the end of the 3rd little brown book. But with the huge success of the Original D&D Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements it was clear that people wanted it. So the designers at TSR, led by Gary, set out the types of dungeons they were running. Those are the modules represented here.

A more thorough analysis remains to be done, but I am satisfied with this preliminary list, which I believe represents an old school design ethos that changed as the game and some of its gamers changed. 

The Inevitable AD&D Division That is 1985


The Products Published by TSR in 1985

It really started in 1982. That was when they shipped Gary out to Hollywood to pioneer D&D entertainment. But the culture of the company and it's creators continued, I feel, through at least 1983. It was by 1984 that the Blume's had allowed the company to almost go bankrupt; and also when Gary wrote to TSR's Board and recommended Firing Blume as CEO and initiating several immediate financial expediencies to get the company solvent again. Among other things the immediate printing of new hardbacks was encouraged. Which is what gave us Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures in '85. the last hardback had been Monster Manual II and then back in 1981 with Fiend Folio. To have churned out two in less than a year had to have been a rushed job. A fact witnessed by many of the poor print runs of UA, which were famous for simply falling apart when you opened them. That, and the content.

Whatever you thought about OA, which was best played as a separate game in itself, set in an oriental type setting. The only reason we were excited by it, was that all my group were sort of oriental martial arts enthusiasts. We never actually played OA, and preferred the Dragon Ninja NPC class to the one presented in OA. UA, however, stirred up all kinds of controversy. Cantrips were a bit of a joke. The spellbook mechanics associated with them seemed almost designed so that PCs would never use them. And the classes? Clearly overpowered, and again, very stilted in play. Barbarians couldn't travel with Magic-Users and rarely use magic. Cavaliers had a very strict code and would probably chafe if they couldn't take their horse everywhere and were always rushing into combat to take out the big baddie. 

They were clearly classes for a very narrow band of play, as was, truthfully, OA as a whole. Not "bad" but not really what you might call "main" or "standard" or "traditional" additions to the game. Alot like some of the creatures in FF and MMII. And in later interviews it was made revealed that UA was really a collection of old material from Dragon that was "officialized". This broke AD&D. Not only did these additions break the game, it literally broke the community in half again. 

This was the second such break. The first had occurred when Original D&D morphed into Classic D&D. This healing, the eventual settling of Original players into the Basic and Expert crowd was somewhat of a slow phenomenon. Lots of favored material was cut out of Classic rules and, worse, it was labeled "basic". But those who favored the more open original version of the game at least had rules that could be bent and shaped easily. This group also included tons of people who came into the game through Holmes or even Moldvay/Cook, and never saw any real reason to "advance" to First Edition. Some even tried AD&D, may have played it for years in their youth, but have returned to the game through their earlier introduction via Basic, better called Classic in my opinion--as it was the  truly Classic way to play the game--the original way. 

Despite the name of this blog, I was not introduced to the game via Basic, or any of the Classic editions. I owned the Basic and Expert Moldvay/Cook masterpiece, and played both Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread, but I never quite understood why their were rules variations between those sets and the "true game" AD&D. I had started played AD&D with a bunch of slightly older Original D&D gamers who had recently made the switch. I even recall being shown the original pamphlets by these guys and thinking that this was a strange sort of way to have begun the game--and they also made little sense to me. 

And that's how I began to feel in about 1985. Truly the first rumblings came along with the release of  The Dragon Lance modules. I just couldn't fathom why anyone would want to play a module based on a novel, let alone a series of novels. I had read the novel. It wasn't bad, and I enjoyed the clear D&D connections, but for Kinders--never a fan. Anywho, that and MMII, which had crap interior art (which would be largely reminiscent of art to come in second edition), which did little to evoke the spirit of the monsters for me. Even if the cover was cool, the inside had been a bit of a disappointment. Unlike Fiend Folio, which I loved. Largely due to the art style. I loved the horror feel of the book, and the pictures were evocative in the extreme. Even if some of the monsters ended up being a bit weird. The art had sold me. But I could live with MMII. It was just a critter book after all. 

But when UA and OA came out. Ugh. I was excited. Here were new, apparently groundbreaking books. Which D&D fan wouldn't be excited? But once I" dove in, I was a little disappointed. I hid it well. I mean, they had Gary's name right there on the cover. Turns out that Zeb Cook had a lot to do with OA, but I didn't know that at the time. And again, they weren't "bad" books. They just seemed like a slightly different direction than what I considered to be the game. 

We were largely ignorant to the inner politics occurring inside TSR at that time. We had no idea Gary had been dismissed. I don't even remember if we knew that by the time 2E was released. It was just clear to me that late 1E had begun changing so much about the game, The Survival Guides, which I never really read. Manual of the Planes which was cool, but we had read a lot of that in Dragon magazine. By '87 I was out of the loop. I knew the game contained all these later books, but I felt like the game had outgrown me, had moved on and left me holding my three core books and maybe a couple of other critter books and I was no longer in the in crowd. 

I remember a good friend of mine showing me "cool" stuff about 2e. I was jaded. I DID know they had removed demons and devils, and softened the supposedly "dark" elements of the game in the wake of the Satanic Panic, which had affected me deeply and badly. 2e was a sell-out in my opinion. I incorrectly assumed Gary was still at the helm at that time, and figured he had buckled under political pressure to keep the game alive and keep making money. Where was the strong Gary of 60 minutes? Even though they had smeared him, he had stood strong. He was the defender of the game! 

Little did I know the Adamantine Paladin had fallen. Killed by the turncoat Assassins the Blumes in their fake cowboy hats and shiny boots. Having been seduced by the Dark needlepoint Sorceress Lorraine they buried the final poisoned dagger in our hero's heart. I would come to weep years later, when the final truth of the evil deed would come to light. But that would take two decades and the resurgence of the Old School for me to realize. 

Even today die hard AD&D fans will often quibble over the line at '85. Do you play with UA or not is often the question levelled against full AD&D players. Here's where I reveal why this is salient for me now. I haven't been playing for a year or so, other than a session or two here and there. I do however, pour over my old books, new books, OSR and New Wave, other games and magazines. Seek to complete my gaming collection, when I'm not trying to do the same with my long lost Comic collection. And I write. I write a lot. Too much actually. It's a bit of a mania. One of the seemingly crazy things I do is completely transcribe rule books. I retype them again and again, rearranging them, tweaking them, trying to combine them. 

I have had a pet project for some time, bits and pieces hearkening back to 2006 or so, to completely recopy the full AD&D rules, including optional Dragon Magazine rules into one massive ruleset that will include everything AD&D from it's start with the Dragon articles and Monster Manual to it's demise and the production of Second Edition. I have played at it for years. And I've gotten quite far. But, here's the problem. It doesn't work. By the time we get to '84 AD&D had begin to shift. Now, to be fair occasional Dragon articles would break the game too. But they were there as optional, in almost all cases. Gary and Tim Kask made that clear in the magazine several times. AD&D was a rather structured rule set. And trying to fit classes like the Barbarian and the Cavalier into them let alone proficiency related skills etc. just doesn't work. 

Now, I'm not saying people shouldn't mix rules from later years, or pick Dragon article suggestions as houserules. Lots of people do, and have tons of fun, and game doesn't fall apart. AD&D is a robust system, and as long as you hand wave some things or accept certain inconsistencies, the game chugs along just fine. I know few DMs who enforced all the requirements of Barbarians or Cavaliers, but they still strode across our game worlds dominating their lesser powered peers. Of course they had powered up Druids, Fighters, MUs etc. as well. A whole other reason the game can be said to have shifted. The assumed power level had crept upwards considerably. 

What I'm saying is that when you take all these pieces and try and make a coherent set of rules--it doesn't work. Or you end up typing "optional" so much, you begin to wonder about the usefulness of the project at all. So, I've stopped trying. I've also realized something else. All these alter rules just aren't that much to my liking anyway. Through the years I've considered a shift to Classic D&D. It would create a certain verisimilitude between this blog's title and my actual gameplay.  I have even written to that affect once or twice. But the reason I never have is that it's just not me. I'm an early AD&D guy. A First Edition player of the early 80's still wreathed in the strange eldritch glow of Original D&D of the late 70's. Fighters, Magic-Users, Clerics and Thieves, and if we were lucky a Ranger or Druid, Sallying forth from Hommlet into the Borderlands, towards Expeditions Against Giants in White Plumed Mountains and Tombs of Horror, filled with dark spidered elves in our Descent into the Depths. The only story was the story woven by our adventures. And yes, few of us returned. But some did. Some lived to tell the tales of adventures drawn primarily from three principal tomes, the Canon of Power. The Monster Manual, The Players' Handbook, and The Dungeon Masters' Guide, and that was all we required.

Monday, March 11, 2024

An Ethnographic Observation on Adversarial Gaming

The year was 1979, June to be exact, or early July when your issue came in the mail. The Dragon magazine Volume III, No. 12, Issue 26. A small design article penned by Michael Crane, "Notes from a Very Successful D&D Moderator", page 27. A short piece, but in retrospect highly relevant to discussions of play style in role-playing games. 

Here is the opening paragraph,

In recent issues of The Dragon we moderators have had to listen to
the cute tricks of various D&D players who were apparently successful.
This is all fine, but I think that it’s about time that we moderators share
some of our good tricks with one another. Determined to right this
wrong (if this is published, that is) I have decided to divulge some of my
dark moderating secrets to all of you deprived moderators out there.
Though I am not sure how the issue arose, though I'm guessing it was in the letters section, it is clear How Crane is responding. He gives suggestion after suggestion of foiling players at their own game. He advises DMs to "Never underestimate your players!" and writes of counter-measures he took as his players ever schemed to outwit him as their DM. Ending the article with a hearty and good willed, "Here's wishing your players -8 on their next saving throw."

I thoroughly loved this little gem, but I share it here to highlight something that comes up from time to time. Adversarial DMing. Some take such an approach as a bad thing, or question if such a playstyle was ever encouraged by the game. Indeed it was! D&D was born out of wargames, and wargames had winners and losers. The difference between a referee in a war game and a D&D game is obvious to most. Referee's in a wargame arbitrate fairly between two opposing forces. But in D&D the DM IS the opposing force. However, he also wears a referee hat. There is a balance in all things, but this clear back and forth jousting between DMs and players is a part of the game I love. 

Having said that, I know there were those who had much different experiences of this style of gaming. And I will say that just being a "Killer DM" is not Adversarial Gaming. DMs can wantonly kill PCs if they wish, but that doesn't make much of a game. True Adversarial DMing is, at least in part, just what Crane captured in his little piece.