Friday, December 4, 2015

On Living 10,000 Years

There is an established narrative in fantasy fiction and gaming that Elves and Humans cannot relate because one lives so much longer than the other. This is total bullshit. Utter Poppycock!

It's like saying that humans cannot relate to dogs and cats because our pets only live a fraction of our expected lifespan, or that children don't matter because they haven't been around long enough. Okay, for some people this is true, cold bitter people, but for most of us it is poppycock! (And no, I just can't let pass any chance to use the word poppycock! Doh! There I did it again! Poppycock!).

For the most part we exist in our short-term memory. We can project a few days ahead of ourselves. We can easily remember backwards for a couple of hours, but after that all we have is long-term memory. Those memories - our proof of our prior existence - these we need to ask our minds to dredge up. The older they get the more decayed they become, the more questionable their accuracy.

I sometimes think that this is the driving force behind the twenty-year nostalgia cycle, that twenty years is the freshness date on human memories. We celebrate them as one last hurrah to their reality. After twenty years we lose our personal connection to them. They are still there in our heads but the vibrancy is missing, the dialog absent, the impact gone. It is almost as if it all happened to somebody else, except for the fact that we never leave the scene.

My point is that until we find some way of expanding the barriers of time which pen in our mind, we are all pretty much twenty years old. Which is not to say that we all act like a bunch of twenty year olds. We are what are memories tell us to be, which is constantly backed up by the physical state of our bodies. Progeria is a genetic disease that causes rapid aging in those who have it. Take a youngster with progeria, force them to live for two decades as a senior citizen in a retirement home, and while they will be able to tell you their age and logically believe that they are only that old, I would be willing to bet that their psyche would test to be no different from the actual senior citizen surrounding them.

On the flipside, imagine an elf who still has the body of a twenty year old despite having lived for 10,000 years. Considering that the elven brain has the same capacity and limitations as a human one, how do you think that elf would act? There would definitely be some very old memories bouncing around down around the bottom of the corpus callosum, and the idea of having another 10,000 years to live will definitely change the way one plans for the future, but plans are just hopes easily forgotten (unless we saddle ourselves with a constant reminder of them). When the elf's guard is down, when not acting ones age for the expectations of everyone else, that elf will have a personality primarily defined by the last twenty years of experience.

As do we all.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Original Palace of the Silver Princess

Ever open a box of Celestial Seasonings to find a bunch of severed fingers hidden in the wax paper wrapper? Me neither. But that is kinda what it feels like reading the original orange-backed copy of B3 Palace of the Silver Princess. I don't own a printed copy but the pdf is freely available on the internet. Finding the time to read it over was a much bigger challenge.

Spoiler Alert! Read no further if you plan to play either adventure.

In case you didn't know, B3 is a Dungeons and Dragons module written by Jean Wells in 1980. It contained some questionable material, most notably a full page illustration by Erol Otus of some three headed, three armed hermaphroditic cave creatures called Ubues who just happened to have faces resembling prominent TSR staffers. This was caught just before the release and the entire print run was taken to the town dump. I suspect it was probably also the last time Erol Otus would work for TSR. A few of the orange backed modules survived making it the most valuable D&D product a collector can get ones paws on.

But is it any good?

The module was given to Tom Moldvay for a quick clean up which would turn it into the green backed module most commonly known as B3 Palace of the Silver Princess. Although Moldvay did completely rewrite the adventure, many of the same concepts remained (the Ice Harp, the Ruby Sword, Princess Argenta, etc), and to the map only minor changes were made, yet the end result are two very different adventures.

If you're looking for something fun to run with your friends or for your kids the green B3 is an excellent choice. Moldvay's adventure is an engaging, tightly written experience possessing a sense of purpose which is missing from the orange B3. The ruby called "My Lady's Heart" is actually the "Eye of Arik" and belongs to a demonic entity trying to find its way into our dimension, something the PC's are there to stop by destroying the gem. No, it's not the most original plot in the world but at least it is something. In the orange B3 we are told the legend of the ruby and the dragon rider who destroyed the land but that story is over and done with. The princess and the knight are long dead. The ruby is just another gem stone, one described as being disappointingly small compared to the tales told of it (I believe it's only 1" across). From the PC's point of view we are not really doing anything except pillaging an old palace that fell into ruin centuries ago. There is no going back, no returning the realm to its past prominence. The fairy tale world the palace one lorded over was irredeemably lost eons ago.

Or so it seems.

But not in a good way. For an "introductory module" the orange B3 does do a decent amount of hand-holding for the new DM but it also does a lot of information with-holding. Often I found myself wondering why Wells brings up all that she does. Unlike the green, the orange module starts with a lengthy description of the countryside and neighboring villages. And then it's gone. It might as well not be there. Two NPC's "The Tinkerer and his Daughter" are given a full page of description as well as an excellent Jim Roslof illustration, but they don't do very much. They are just there as a vehicle for the rumor table. It is hinted that they may have some greater involvement in the whole story, especially since the tinkerer possesses what sounds like the armor and dragon saddle of the knight mentioned in the legend, but that too just stops. At first I thought the tinkerer was supposed to be the knight from the legend but later it is revealed that the knight as well as the princess are now ghosts haunting the room the ruby is in. To a degree these feel like creative prompts designed to give the DM interesting directions in which to take the adventure. Still though, it would be better to know the whole scheme of things before considering its tangents.

One spot where the orange module does excel is in the matter of description. Inside and outside of the text boxes (actually more outside than in them) Well's writing shines with a literary flair, often feeling more like a deconstructed novel where Moldvay's is more like a DIY cartoon. She had a good eye for detail and is quite skilled at making the palace seem like a fairy tale grown decrepit with time, often fluctuating between dreamy fancy and musty cob-webbed rot.

The Ubues. The Ubues are a head-shaker. According to an interview with Wells they were inspired by a joke one of her gaming friends used to abuse at the table, meaning it was probably inspired by the three headed knight from Monty Python's Holy Grail. Yet in the module they are far more feral and degenerate. They were hideous long before Erol Otus decided to illustrate them. The whole bit about ubue shaman killing off baby ubues when too many are born? Back in the 80's? Knee deep in the Satanic Panic? It's no wonder management threw a shit fit when they saw it.

Management also had a conniption over "the illusion of the decapus" which presents a nearly naked woman hung up by her hair and being tormented by wild men and their swords. The editor wanted to know why they were putting S&M in an adventure meant for kids. Wells and crew didn't know what S&M was. She explains the illusion as being there to get the paladins to rush into the room.

Two interesting side notes: there are no paladins in B/X D&D, and TSR management did know what S&M was. Beware of supervisors bearing ball gags.

Probably the strangest thought I had while reading the orange module is just how much it resembles Kubrick's The Shining with the palace standing in for the Overlook Hotel. Both are haunted by many spirits (and the orange version is far more haunted than the green). The palace also, possibly because of all the rooms which are described but left empty for the DM to fill with monsters and treasure, has a very vacuous feel to it. Like the Overlook it tends to easily fluctuate between elegant and decrepit. At one moment it feels like something beautiful and ornate. The next moment it's littered with corpses. An undue amount of attention is given to bathing and how water works. In room 10 on the upper level, it is in a bathroom with magical hot and cold running water that we first encounter an ubue, possibly a parallel to the ghost of the woman in room 237 from the Shining - both of which are totally hideous.

Then there is Travis. This crazy old guy is a first level fighter with AC 7, four hit points, and a meat cleaver for a weapon. Gamewise, he's not even an orc's worth of challenge. Yet his presence dominates a number of rooms in his wing of the palace. He even has a writing desk containing quill and ink and empty scrolls of parchment. If given the chance I wonder what he would write?

All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.
All work and no dungeon crawl makes Travis a dull boy.

The Shining was released in May of 1980. Palace of the Silver Princess went to press somewhere around December 1980, so it's not a far stretch to imagine one influencing the other. However, if so, then Wells missed one of the movie's best moments. The palace would do well with an iced-over topiary filled with haunted hedge rows that attack those PC's moving through them.

But is it any good?

It's hard to say yes, and it's hard to say no. Personally, I feel that adventure modules should be a bit like an elegant meal with everything on the plate and off working together to create a memorable experience, so I don't care for modules like B1 In Search of the Unknown which gives you a framework and invites you to stock it. If you want to do that you might as well get out the dungeon geomorphs and roll some dice to randomly stock the rooms.

Of course, with this said, you can't fault Well's for taking this approach. It's a level 1 to 3 adventure. Leaving the palace at its default level of emptiness is probably the only way a small group of first level adventurers will survive their way through it. Also, if you want to do a more story-orientated game, possibly your own version of the Shining with Travis chasing a bunch of frightened 1st level adventurers through a largely abandoned palace - it can do that. B2's The Caves of Chaos cannot.

For every flaw that the orange B3 seems to have there is also some justification for it. The Ubues? The world of child-like wonder and innocent glee grown decrepit from the passage of time, hopelessly lost to a hard-scrabble existence? All of that would work great with a Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign. Is it something I would run for a bunch of 12 year olds, such as I once was when my Mom first ran it for my friends and myself?

Oh hell no. Hand that Moldvay version over here.

Which makes me wonder about the nature of B/X D&D circa 1980. My copy says "For 3 or more Adults. Ages 10 and Up." When was the last time you saw adulthood described as starting at age 10?

I've always thought that D&D was not a kids game and never intended to be one. It was made to be played by adults and only marketed to kids in the 1980's because that's where the money was. Management probably tacked on the Ages 10 and Up fully intending for the box sets to be something they could sell on the shelves of Toys-R-Us sandwiched between Stratego and Monopoly. Meanwhile the game designers pushed for For 3 or more Adults since they learned it as adults and found it to be best played among adults. Jean Wells mentioned Paladins, which is AD&D, the D&D for grown-ups. The one they probably would have called "Adult Dungeons & Dragons" if only management didn't believe it sounded too much like S&M.

To management everything looks like S&M. It's the nature of the beast.

Now, if you'll excuse me I have to pedal this Big Wheel really fast before the wandering Ubues catch up with me.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hurts So Good!

Adventure modules these days tend to get poked with the ugly end of the ugly stick.

That was me writing about adventure modules somewhere online this morning, and it's sad but true. Out there in the gaming community not only are adventure modules despised but it's seen as cool to despise them. As if real GM's not only refuse to eat quiche but they also go it alone when it comes to running their adventures, often making it up as they go along. I don't have a problem with this, but as someone who grew up loving adventure modules, often far more than the books which ran the games themselves, it does sadden me somewhat.

I think that people forget just how monumental these titles were. How just the mere mention of Tomb of Horrors or Hall of the Fire Giant King could leave a player quaking in ones Keds. The monsters were ancillary to the adventures themselves and if you survived an Expedition to the Barrier Peaks then bragging rights were yours. If you could find my old Star Frontiers Volturnus modules you would find the phrase "Solved and Conquered" written on the inside cover, presumably as a reminder to myself that they had been played and were not to be played again, but more likely just as a flat out brag to whoever happened to find them. Like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters - "We came. We saw. We kicked its ass!" - it was just a very 80's thing to do.

And I don't think I was alone in this. It may explain the fun-house-like nature of early gaming modules. White Plume Mountain and Ghost Tower of Inverness are two of the goofiest most non-sensical adventures ever written, but man were they fun to run on a snowy afternoon. It wasn't about character. It wasn't about story arcs. It wasn't about scrabbling together experience points and leveling up. It was about getting together with your friends and accomplishing mighty feats of valor. It was the same mentality which during the summertime would send us swarming towards theme parks, looking to ride the worst roller coasters we could find, seeing who could take the hyperbollic twists and turns and drops and still keep three corn dogs stuffed in ones gullet. Even when you did puke you still felt strangely better about yourself for doing so.

Another aspect often overlooked with modules is the matter of antagonism. Don't get me wrong. There were fights. We're talking Junior High, Dungeons & Dragons, and the early 80's. You'd have to remove all three of these aspects to not have a fight break out. With a few notable exceptions aside we were pretty good about it. Not too many fights happened, and when they did they were usually about the rules and not the adventures themselves. Although the GM or DM was often there as an antagonistic force, when things went seriously sour the module was to blame. Don't hate the DM. Hate Gary Gygax. He's the one who wrote most of this stuff. And it worked! Some of the time.

Boxed text designed to be read aloud when the players enter a room is another boon from the past which is about as sexy these days as a pair of over-sized granny panties. People seem to think that if you have half a brain you should be able to pull something as good or better out of it. Granted, a lot of bad writing went into those text boxes, yet at the same time I think they gave us a certain liberty which you don't get with ad-libbing. Freedom from self-consciousness as well as words which are there but taking their sweet time getting around to ones mouth.

Now I'm so much older. I haven't played an adventure module since the 21st century began. And the adventures have gotten better, more intelligent, less gamey, and with fewer characters who are simply pack-mules for magic items named "Bob1" and "Bob2" and "Bob4" (there was no Bob3 because we were cool like that).

Still, like John Cougar Mellencamp I do long for those young boy days with a module like I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, or X4 Master of the Desert Nomads. Talk about hurting so good!