Parlainth: the Forbidden City had just the right amount of dungeon crawling. Which is weird, because Against the Giants had entirely too much dungeon crawling, despite being a quarter the length. Even when you factor in that Parlainth's 144 pages also included a nearby town, magic item and monster descriptions, and more complex stat blocks, you've still got nearly double the pure dungeon material.
But maybe that's something. Twice the dungeon in four times the space. Perhaps the issue is one of density. There are no room-by-room descriptions here. The ruins of Parlainth are divided into nine geographical areas and each area has a list of inhabitants, treasure, encounters and adventure hooks, but the bulk of the actual furniture is left to the GM to imagine. You could make the argument, then, that Against the Giants is more purely useful. Use that module and the main rulebooks, and within ten minutes you and a group of eight random strangers you met an a convention can be playing a D&D adventure. You don't even need to read it first. Just the first page of introduction and a quick glance at the maps and you're set. You can learn about the rooms at the same time as your players. So Parlainth is going to take longer to read than Against the Giants will to run.
I think that's largely a good thing, though. There's only one Against the Giants adventure, but assuming you used every suggestion in this book, you'd be playing more than 30 out of Parlainth. And the situation, setting, and characters provides potential for many, many more. I guess that's why it's called a "campaign set" and not a "module." Maybe I just prefer campaign sets to modules. That seems . . . likely.
But I also think it may be a 90s vs 80s thing. I went back and looked at Reverse Dungeon, because I remember liking it, and it did the room-by-room thing too, but even among the rooms, there was a lot more consideration for the social and political situation of the dungeon, and the motivations of its inhabitants. Although I also have to acknowledge that part of this may just be a generalized increase in production values and institutional expertise. I may have to check out an official 5th edition module just to see what direction adventure design has gone in 2020.
But enough about Parlainth in the abstract. What is this book all about, specifically? Well, Parlainth is a city that chose an alternate path to avoid the Horrors - instead of burying themselves underground, they decided to telelport the whole city to an alternate dimension with no physical connection to the rest of the world. Totally isolated from any potential danger, they could wait out the Scourge in peace and comfort. There are many unanswered questions here (like where are they getting air), but the most important concerns the plan's biggest and most obvious flaw - what happens if a Horror gets into the city before it disappears?
Turns out that they use their mind control powers to inflame preexisting political tensions to start a civil war that leads to the entire population being slaughtered in the first few years. After that, the Horrors find themselves trapped for a few centuries, in which they have nothing to do but knock down buildings, make big piles of shiny things, and create armies of golems and walking dead to fight for their amusement.
Fifty years before the game's canonical start date, Parlainth returned to Barsaive, through a series of convoluted adventurer-type shenanigans that were documented in one of the official tie-in novels. In those 50 years, the easy and obvious treasures were looted, a dragon moved in, and a town of would-be adventurers sprung up in the city outskirts. Nowadays, you can only strike it rich through long and complex dungeon delves, launched from a gold rush town whose richest citizen is the troll who owns the general store and where the greatest threat may well be the bands of desperadoes waiting to rob you after you've succeeded.
And really, how in the hell is Earthdawn so good at this? I kind of went into this book with a jaded attitude of "oh, sure, it's going to be another Earthdawn signature well-justified dungeon - yawn," but I was not expecting that it would also be a western. It's such a fruitful combination of genres that I'm unwilling to believe it was pioneered by a book this late in rpg history, but it's been so long since I've seen it used so explicitly that it feels refreshing, even now (seriously, it is driving me to distraction trying to remember another, earlier example of "dungeon explorers are essentially old west prospectors" - google is no help).
The book gets a lot of mileage out of its genre inspiration. There are labor unions and imperial agents and the local bar "makes a big profit on broken furniture." Tall tales are told in rowdy saloons. A shady guy takes bets on the fortunes of the golems' perpetual mock war. At one point a missionary shows up to minister to the poor, mad tunnel-dwellers (the "foul folk" - one of the book's few missteps, saying that the Horror-tainted of Barsaive are drawn towards the Palainth catacombs to become "little more than savages" - gross). It is about as western as you can possibly get without making it obvious that you're doing it on purpose.
And as a result of this, you've got a whole genre's worth of potential stories to work with. While you explore the ruins, you find a man fleeing bandits, but oops, he's actually in league with them and is trying to lure you into an ambush. Collect a bounty on the bandits who flee into the ruins to hide. Take a job from a naturalist to retrieve a rare plant.
To a certain degree, a lot of this stuff is just baked right into the colonialist assumptions of "traditional fantasy" But I can't just dismiss it as an accident, because Earthdawn, especially for its time, did a lot to consciously distance itself from the most toxic colonialist tropes. I mentioned in an earlier post about how Orks and Trolls, traditional fantasy monsters, are presented in a very humanistic way, but it's an approach that's consistent among every intelligent inhabitant of Barsaive, except perhaps the Horrors themselves (and it's important to remember that the Horrors are invaders from another universe - you never go to where they're from and wipe them out).
The Eastern Catacombs of Parlainth are home to a kingdom of cadaver men. They were created by the Horrors, and their queen may yet be engaging in dark pacts to borrow the power to maintain their numbers, but their presentation is very clear - this is their home and they're defending it against "adventurers." They're dangerous, they will reanimate your corpse to recruit you into their society, whether you like it or not, but they never really read as "evil." They mostly kill in self-defense, or at the order of their no-more-than-usually ruthless Queen. They can be approached for trade or conversation. They've got peculiar customs and preferences (for example, they're constantly trying to learn new skills to stave off or counteract the decay of their brains). Even to the extent that they have a very dysfunctional point of view (being the five-hundred-year-old survivor of a dead civilization will do that to you), they are at least given the dignity of having motives and culture.
The fucking undead. Even the falsemen (golems) get a "is this robot truly an automaton or is it conscious" plot.
Plus, on top of that, the self-regarding bullshit of the old Theran Empire is explicitly called out. "The city, like the Empire it represented, was a facade of dazzling glories covering a dark and sinister reality." I can't say with certainty that Earthdawn succeeds at creating a fantasy world that escapes the genre's implicit colonialist framing, but it has so many individual elements that appear to be trying to sidestep these issues that I can't be sure it wasn't a deliberate design goal.
I don't know. What were the politics of rpgs like in 1994? FASA made Shadowrun, which imagined a cyberpunk world where indigenous peoples broke free from European settler societies, but they did it by being more magical than the white man . . . which I think might qualify as being progressive . . . in intent . . . for the time. So it's not out of the question that the same company made their fantasy game with a similar intent. But if that's the case, I have to wonder about the subtlety and precision of Earthdawn's apparent genre critique. If the company was really capable of that much nuance, why didn't more of it make its way back into Shadowrun?
My conclusion here is that it's a combination of things. There is an intent here, but there are also some coincidences and happy accidents, and I'm sure that I'm reading too much into certain choices out of the wishful thinking that this game I like also happened to share my personal values, and, of course, I barely know what I'm talking about in any case.
As for the book, I'd say that Parlainth: the Forgotten City is a pretty darned successful campaign set. If you want to use it, you're going to have to put the work in, but it is rich with jumping-off points and the setting is just the right combination of old-school door-kicking nonsense and new-school situational storytelling to make for some great potential games.
Ukss Contribution: A lot of good stuff here, but I liked the Screaming Fountain. Once it was the Singing Fountain, and it made beautiful music, but the Horrors corrupted it and now it runs with blood and regularly lets out shrieks to freeze the heart of even the stoutest adventurer. Maybe Ukss' version will have some kind of point to it.