Last night I read Dwellers of the Forbidden City, Against the Giants, and Descent Into the Depths of the Earth. I decided in advance to do them all as one post, because they were each pretty short (less than 30 pages), but after reading them, I realized it was a good decision because my opinion on all three was exactly the same - OMG, these things are dull. It's just one room after another, and in 90% of them the only thing they say is a list of monsters, a list of furniture, and a list of treasure - usually in that order. Sometimes we'll get a character motivation, but those are few and far between.
To a certain degree, this is unfair. These old modules weren't really meant to be read, they were meant to be played, and if you're into this exact style of roleplaying, then the books provide you with everything you need. However, I am not into that style, and thus I felt like I was getting punished for something.
It's funny, a while back I read a big batch of BECM Adventures and I recall finding them pretty dull. Ha! It turns out I didn't know what dull was. At least 3 of the 5 books from that batch had actual plots and comprehensible stakes. You'd need a microscope to see the difference between Descent Into the Depths of the Earth and an unprovoked home invasion.
The main difference I see is that the BECM adventures were published in '84-'86, but these AD&D Adventures were from '80-'81. And Against the Giants goes back to at least '78. They are all reprints of convention Tournament games. It's something that came up in the rpg.net thread - apparently they used to play D&D in tournaments.
Dwellers of the Forbidden City actually roughly explains the rules. When it was run in a tournament, players had to use preconstructed characters, they had 3 and a half hours to get through the whole thing, and apparently there was a scoring sheet that was not included here. Narrative is optional.
I mean, I guess I get it. I'm not sure it's a format that promotes very good adventures, but there's a challenge there. Plus, if we didn't have the tournaments, we would never have gotten such classic Gygaxian character names as Flerd Trantle, Beek Gwenders, Frush O'Suggil, or Gleep Wurp, and those weren't even the highlights - they're all that ridiculous. If Chuck Tingle himself designed an AD&D module, it could not seem any stranger (though I do think Chuck would have a bit more fun with the "Great Tentacle Rod" that was wielded by one of the NPCs)
Now, let's do a quick breakdown of each adventure:
Dwellers of the Forbidden City is the most imaginative of the three. It is apparently the origin for classic D&D monsters like the Yuan-ti (snake people), Bullywugs (Frog people), and Aboleths (psychic horrors from an age before humanity, but they kind of look like fish). And there's a lot to like about the setting that's presented here. However, it hits a major pet peeve of mine, and I'm not sure I can forgive it for that.
At the beginning of the adventure, you're in a village nearby the titular Forbidden City, and the local shaman is giving you the lay of the land. At the end of the conversation, the DM is warned "Naturally, the shaman will not tolerate any questioning or mocking of his ideas and will refuse to cooperate with any who do."
Okay, so the shaman is a proud man. A bit prickly. That's a valid character trait. But what are his ideas that he's so protective of?
To summarize - The Forbidden City is haunted by the ghosts of the tribe's enemies, who will viciously attack any member of the tribe who dares set foot inside it. The shaman can keep them contained by setting up magical spirit poles, but forces inside the city itself are constantly tearing them down.
Are you laughing yet? Do you see the joke? No? All you see is a perfectly plausible scenario for a fantasy world, a potential springboard for some interesting worldbuilding to explain why this rural culture has enemies in a long-ruined city, and a great excuse for the tribal leadership to involve outsiders in their business?
Don't you get it? The shaman is 100% wrong about what's going on! Ha. Ha. Ha. You're not going to bravely venture into a ghost-wracked ruin of an ancient and decadent civilization to grapple with the sinister forces of the underworld who would enact their baleful blood curse on the living descendants of their traditional enemies. What a silly thing to believe. No, the real Forbidden City is nothing more than the home to a bunch of C-list AD&D humanoids.
Can you even imagine, an adventure about fighting vengeful ghosts and demon-men instead of Bugbears and Tasloi (I guess they're kind of like jungle goblins - they ride giant wasps and talk to apes and are actually pretty cool, even if they're never heard from again)?
Sorry for my sarcasm, but that sort of shit bugs the hell out of me. I can't help wondering, though, what sort of cues were present in the original game to warn the PCs that their best source of local information was completely full of shit. Right, like I'm an adventurer in D&D world and the local wise man tells me that the ruin is full of ghosts, that's valid tactical information. Okay, let's make sure we bring a cleric. Maybe stock up on holy water and platinum swords. There's no part of me that's going to think "hey, when this dipshit says 'ghosts,' he probably means, like, frog-people and shit."
There's a dark part of me that suspects the big clue is the word "shaman." Maybe that one word is the signal for the DM to roleplay a lazy indigenous stereotype, possibly with an offensive accent and diction. Maybe, if we were calling him a wizard, this whole digression would never have come up.
I don't know. The book doesn't come right out and say what's going on, so I'm left with a lot of maybes. Is that enough to condemn the adventure as a whole? Probably not, but it can consider itself scolded.
Next up is Against the Giants. It's got the closest thing any of these modules have to a plot - Giants are attacking, go and teach them a lesson! But as far as plots go, it's basic. You could argue that it's another example of the problematic colonialist plot at the heart of D&D, but honestly giants read more like Vikings than natives to me. They've got steadings and Jarls and a bunch of other European cultural signifiers, so I think it's pretty safe to treat them as big, man-eating monsters instead of as a cuttout of imperialist propaganda.
I need to make a special note of that because in this adventure, you kill their children. This is probably not merely incidental. Gygax himself breaks the fourth wall to tell us that his playtest group did exactly that. "The rationale of this whole series of adventures is a fight to the finish."
It's gross. Incredibly gross. But it's probably a "what the fuck's wrong with you"-level gross, rather than a full-on hate crime.
My two takeaways from this adventure are 1)Don't kill the giant bebes and 2)Yeti with a sword. Also, describing a lady giant as "comely to those of her ilk" is just a stone cold burn. Why are you threatened by powerful women, Gygax?
Descent Into the Depths of the Earth was also there. It might have been a bit of an error to leave the "Kuo-Toa sacrifice captives to their aquatic goddess" bit of lore until after you described their whole town (I was mostly reading that adventure thinking - "why can the PCs not simply walk through the area without killing anybody.") However, if this is your style of adventure - explore map, fight stuff you find, then the book works fine. "Beautiful woman with the head of a lobster" is going to keep me up, though.
Overall - if I had a choice, I would have preferred to pass on these. They were found in a crate in my most recent move and I have no idea where they came from. They're an artifact of primordial D&D, though, so even though I'll never play them, it was good to learn what they were like.
Ukss Contribuiton: Okay, three books, three picks. From Forbidden City, the god egg. The Bullywugs are incubating it, with the help of a human wizard, and that's what's keeping them loyal to the Yuan-ti's goals. It's actually a dragon egg, because old D&D were a bunch of cowards, but in Ukss . . . who knows.
Against the Giants: I mean, I gotta go with the Great Tentacle Rod, right? There were other well-chosen details here (a giant princess has a pet cave bear, there's a dashing female thief locked up in the basement who doesn't get a name because Gygax was afraid of strong women, frost giants use fire beetles to light their homes), but in the end, a magic item like the Great Tentacle Rod simply doesn't come along every day.
As for Descent . . . ehhhh . . . this is probably one of those cases where something old wound up becoming so iconic that the future can't help but see it as hopelessly basic, but this adventure was as hopelessly basic as anything featuring an underground society of reverse mermaids could possibly be. But if I have to choose . . . the leader of the Kuo-Toa was a cleric/assassin. That's an interesting class combo. I'm not going to use his ridiculous name, Va-Guulgh, but there could be a merfolk assassin-priest who acts as an antagonist to the undersea kingdoms.