Monday, March 29, 2021

Three More Old School Modules

 Someone save me from these damned old-school modules. 

Maybe that's a harsh thing to say, but they operate under assumptions that are utterly alien to me and every time I get mixed up with them, I find myself lost and confused. It's not a good feeling.

Two out of the these three at least made an effort to include story elements, but they're stuck in this mindset where "story" is just presented as a series of rooms. I didn't even notice my copy of Rahasia was missing its first two pages until sometime on page 5 or 6, and it occurred to me that I should know who these people are (a state of confusion that initially eluded my notice because The Isle of Dread didn't bother explaining who any of  its people were until the very end of the module).

I don't want to be too much of a crank, though. It's clear, now that I've seen a cross-section of modules through time, that people were getting better at writing them as the years went on. Isle of Dread, from 1981 takes pains to explain that it's going to be a "wilderness" adventure, as if somehow wilderness wasn't the bulk of your average fantasy world. Did you know that interesting things can happen between dungeons? It's true. And early D&D was there to demonstrate an adventure that was not confined to the controlled environment of a linear dungeon by describing the wide-open world in terms of a series of rooms.

Curse of Xanathon was from 1982, and there is actually a point to all the fighting. Its opening page warns that it is "an unusual module, in that much of the players actions will be in the form of detective work," and promises such exotic modes of play as "discovering clues" and "deciding on a proper course of action," even if, in the end, the only real course of action available to you is proceeding through a series of rooms.

Still, CoX's rooms have a context to them. The first and last rooms in a particular area are plot related, and there is some effort to explain why you can have rooms with a mummy, gargoyles, and ogres in the same area (it's a temple, with a tomb, magical statues guarding an altar, and fuck it, the priests captured a couple of ogres and locked them in jail.) It's not like Isle of Dread which has two consecutive encounters with a pteranodon and a roc, respectively (to be fair, they're like 50 miles apart on the map, but they are numbered 15 and 16 and if you follow the river that connects them, you will not have any other officially sanctioned encounters)

Rahasia is from 1984, and I'm assuming is even more story-driven. It's hard to say when I'm missing the part of the book that explains the module as a whole, but I got the sense that the proper nouns I kept seeing in its series of rooms had some overarching importance. I can't say for sure, though, because I didn't finish it. On page 3 (the first page I had), it said that I would want to kick off by reading the PCs a letter that explained the situation, but the letter itself is on one of the missing pages. I assume that if I stuck with it, I would be able to pick up the gist by context (there's something about missing maidens and a religious cult, but it's unclear whether the cult members are dangerous fanatics or being mind controlled), and honestly I don't need the hassle.

Still, Rahasia has the distinction of being written by Tracy and Laura Hickman of Dragonlance fame, so it's clear that TSR was already getting more concerned with fiction, even at that early date . . .

Or is my theory full of shit, because I looked it up on wikipedia and it turns out that D&D Rahasia, while published in 1984, was actually a reprint of a module the Hickmans self-published in 1979. So that's one timeline fucked. I could preserve my theory by quibbling that it took time for TSR to get into the narrative game, even if independents had been blazing ground for years, and it might even be true, but I would have to know a lot more about early D&D to speak with any kind of confidence.

Let's just say instead that if you look at D&D adventures from the 90s, they, on average, are driven by the narrative, whereas if you look at D&D adventures from the early 80s, they, on average, are driven by the location, and as you move from one period to another, there is kind of a fuzzy transition between approaches.

In the end, these kind of books are the hardest for me to read. I don't actually enjoy this style of gameplay, and thus whatever merits lie within their nuances are difficult for me to detect. Isle of Dread was kind of racist, I guess. The titular island and the routes to it are home to "native villages," which made me exclaim aloud, "aren't all villages, 'native villages?'" I guess there are colonial settlements small enough to be called "villages,"but that's not really the vibe I got from this book. Just goes to show that the colonialist mindset can crop up in the darndest places.

Also, there's a section that makes a big deal about Fano, the "talking chief," so called because the "chief" of his village was a statue that psychically advised him. Except those scare quotes were in the original, implying Fano was not accurately relaying his personal situation. And, I mean, come on D&D, what are you doing? This is a fantasy world. Statues can give people advice. If you told us that the chief of the village was a statue containing the spirits of its departed elders, and that the day-to-day leader was a holy man who interpreted them . . . that's just a thing that can happen. I would not be inclined to disbelieve you. It's actually significantly less dumb than whatever the hell is going on with the Cleric class. Stop making indigenous-coded people the only ones who don't understand how magic works.

Ooh, got hung up on the pet peeve again. If I'm going to talk about the book's racism, I should focus on the part where every village that didn't want the PCs around was filled with cannibals. Maybe the subplot about enslaving the locals and forcing them to work in a gold mine, even if the book says to "discourage this by having the slaves work very slowly and having them rebel often."

Good Lord, that's offensive. Didn't really strike me until I saw it all concentrated in one place.

Anyway, Curse of Xanathon was fine. Not sure if I'm entirely on board with the cursed duke's wacky edicts ("all taxes must be paid in beer" "no artificial light after dark" "all horses must be fed meat"), but it's hard to screw up "evil magic user plots to take over the land, find the crystal that is his secret weakness and beat the snot out of him."

I'm sure Rahasia was okay as well. It was the adventure so nice they published it twice. However, I could not get invested enough to finish it after realizing I missed the beginning (I'm the same way with movies and TV shows, if I miss even part of it, I usually wind up turning the whole thing off).

Anyway, I've still got a couple of AD&D adventures as part of my list, but I'm hoping I've seen the last of this era and style of gameplay.

Ukss Contribution: Only Curse of Xanathon gets one today. I'm sure Rahasia would have too, if I'd finished it, but we'll probably never know for sure.

For good ol' CoX, it's going to be something goofy and super-specific, sorry. 

As I might have implied, this adventure follows the familiar "furniture, monsters, treasure" format of dungeon design. And the interesting thing about this is that often the furniture is the treasure. On two separate occasions, it mentions a room's tablecloths as potentially valuable bits of treasure (worth 30gp and 100gp, respectively). Sure, you could get some good parody mileage out of adventurers who always make sure to steal the silverware on their way out, but tablecloths?! That's beyond parody.

So Ukss is going to feature at least one luxury tablecloth manufacturer. Those things are going to be damned collector's items.


  1. Though I recognize they aren't your favorites to review, I do enjoy your looks at these old adventures. Thank you.


  2. " Isle of Dread, from 1981 takes pains to explain that it's going to be a "wilderness" adventure, as if somehow wilderness wasn't the bulk of your average fantasy world."

    Based on what I remember of TSR's published modules before that, the average fantasy world consisted of Dungeon like zones and little else.