Saturday, February 26, 2022

(Planescape) The Great Modron March

 What makes an adventure "philosophical?" I ask because that's the yardstick by which The Great Modron March chooses to measure itself. This is not a campaign that centers around "slaughtering monsters or crawling through dungeons. . . Fact is, top shelf planeswalking adventurers are those bloods who can think or talk their way out of a situation as well as fight their way out."

But what does this more thoughtful style of adventuring look like in practice? Mostly it seems to involve never being able to persuade anyone of anything. Preemptively impossible social challenges were so common in this book that I started keeping track. There's an almost escalating absurdity to it. The second-to-last adventure has a paladin visit the PCs, to tell them about an attack his order is launching against the villain of one of the earlier adventures, and "if the PCs insist on accompanying him, [he] puts his mailed boot down and tells them that there's no need for them to come . . . He does everything he can to dissuade the PCs from coming with him, short of physically restraining them."

It's sooo weird. "Here's a thrilling planar adventure that the PCs are going to have a personal stake in, but they are not allowed to come along. The friendly NPC was just letting them know about as a professional courtesy." Of course, it's all to set up the paladin's untimely death in the failed attack and thereby give the PCs a double personal stake in taking out these complete assholes, but I think if you ran it by the book, the players would be completely justified in thinking the DM was jerking them around.

This sense of being constantly thwarted is The Great Modron March's greatest weakness. One adventure has you redirected on a simple fetch quest something like a dozen times:

0. Your employer has been poisoned and only a Beastlands nymph knows the cure.

1. Except that the nymph is losing her powers and memory because her lake is being polluted by modrons wading through the river upstream. So you have to persuade them to leave the water.

2. Except they can't leave the water, because they have a treaty with the Beastlands that forbids them from harming or displacing any animal, so they're stuck in the river unless you can persuade a nearby pack of dogs to move.

3. Except the dogs don't want to move because they're tired of the modrons' bullshit, and maybe you should talk to the druids who lined the opposite bank with impassible thorns.

4. Except the druids are cleaning up some more pollution on the opposite bank and the last thing they need is for the modrons to come along and make it worse. Maybe you should backtrack and find out why they got in the river in the first place.

5. Except when you find the wemics who drove the modrons up-river, they tell you that they were doing it at the request of an elf prince and they'd need his permission to stand aside.

6. Except the elf says that the modrons were headed straight for his town because they were blown off course by a mortai (godlike sentient cloud) and such creatures are too powerful and mysterious to gainsay. He'd of course be willing to compromise if he could get the mortai's permission to return them to their original course.

7. Except the reason the mortai changed their course in the first place was to protect a water nymph sage . . .


But it's not over.

8. And then you go back to the nymph to get a token of her permission to divert the modron. 

9.And then you go back to the mortai with the nymph's token, so you can get the mortai's token to take to the elves.

10. And then you go back to the elves, to get the prince's token to take to the wemic.

11. And then you go back to the wemics to tell them it's okay.

12. And then you go to the modrons to tell them the coast is clear.

13. And then you return to the nymph to get the cure for the poison.

Thus achieving your original goal. At no point anywhere in this chain is anyone open to persuasion by the PCs. You can't even shortcut the last few steps of returning back to half the people you've already talked to. Every step is vital.

In a way, this is just bad adventure design. If you encountered this in a video game, it would be the sidequest you complained about for the rest of your life. However, it's also plausibly thematic. The modrons are machine-like in their relentless march across the plains, turning aside only for their ancient treaty obligations or the physical impossibility of the route and not for anything as petty as "personal safety" or "there being an occupied orphanage in the way" (the book suggests that a PC-coordinated evacuation can only save 20 of 50 children and implies that even clever plans may still result in dozens of deaths) or even "walking straight into hell." And that seems weird and alien, except that nearly everyone you meet has similarly unshakeable convictions. There is a bit of that modron-nature inside all of us.

Maybe that's what "philosophical adventuring" means - that everywhere you turn you're going to run straight into the brick walls of people's foundational philosophies. That's why your "old friend" won't let you leave the town of Sylvania before you get your party on, why the paladin won't accept your help to defeat your common enemy, why captured modron "insists that its [escape] plan carries the highest chance of success and refuses to consider other options." Because when the stakes of the adventure are Truth itself, any admission of error is to essentially sacrifice the prize.

Or maybe the authors just approached the adventure path like they were storyboarding a tv series or outlining a novel, and thus it's entire agenda is getting the PCs into the right position at the right time.

We may never know.

Ukss Contribution: One of the adventures has the PCs arrested for a crime they didn't commit and given a sham trial ("nothing the PCs can say proves their innocence") and it's a frustrating scenario, but with an interesting twist - the judge in that case is a captured modron. It has not adapted well to being held captive in a chaotic evil town, and always convicts the accused and always pronounces a sentence of death (presumably because its nature is to always follow the law, and the local lawmakers have no interest in either acquittals or mercy), but I really like the idea of a judge also being a prisoner. The town needed a judge, so they enslaved the most qualified jurist they could find, and it sort of works better than the system they had before, even if it is a mockery of justice. It's a fascinating paradox, and I think I'll play it as straight as possible - a judge who is conscious of and resentful of his imprisonment, but who takes the law so seriously that they would never dream of undermining the court by slacking on the job. Of course, the laws of such a society would be cruel and corrupt, and so the correct application of said laws are what leads to injustices of the very sort that put the judge in chains . . .


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