Monday, July 3, 2017

[D&D] Down the rabbit hole

The post on The Abduction of Good King Despot got me thinking about Gary Gygax's other venture into "wackiness," the divisive EX1: Dungeonland and EX2: The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. For anyone out there who doesn't already know, both of these modules were released by TSR in 1983, both of them are adapted from "special" levels within Gary's legendary, unpublished Greyhawk Castle dungeons (the World of Greyhawk boxed set refers to them by the module codes GC1 and GC2, while an article in Dragon #71 refers to EX2 even more intriguingly as "module GC S8/X2"), both of them were used frequently by Gary in convention one-off and demonstration games (he mentions that Dr. Joyce Brothers played through them), and, where the controversial element comes in, both of them are direct adaptations of Lewis Carroll's stories, EX1 corresponding to Alice in Wonderland and EX2 to Through the Looking Glass.

We know now that these sorts of whimsical areas and adaptations of third-party content were common in Greyhawk Castle. In addition to the Wonderland level(s), there were also gates to King Kong's island (later published by TSR as module WG6), Jack Vance's "World of Adventure" and Dying Earth, Michael Moorcock's Melnibone, the Land of Oz, Asgard, Olympus, the strange land of "carnivorous plants, invisible terrain, breathable water, and so on" described in the Believer magazine article about Gary Gygax (for which an expanded version was prepared and nearly published near the end of Gary's life, before - as with so many other things - getting caught up in legal wrangling), and surely many others I don't know about. And even discounting the gates to other realms, the dungeon itself included such whimsical elements as a bowling alley for giants, a "Living Room" filled with animated furniture (a "reimagined" version of which was later published by Gary's Greyhawk Castle co-DM Rob Kuntz), and the infamous "Machine Level" (the gist of which was later adapted into AD&D module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks).

Gary had a large and very active group of players c. 1973-75, so he was under constant pressure both to provide new challenges and to provide enough variety to keep them from growing bored. The rulebooks describe "standard" dungeons consisting of a many-leveled complex of mazelike hallways and caverns filled with doors (some obvious, some secret) and stairwells, pit traps and shifting walls, mysterious fountains, statues, and archways with assorted strange and magical effects, and of course an enormous variety of horrid monsters guarding an equally extensive array of fabulous treasures. Greyhawk Castle had all of those things, in great abundance (in both its original 13-level conception and the later, expanded version that eventually had 40+ different levels), but in order to keep things from becoming predictable and stale for a group of several dozen players, some of whom were playing multiple times a week, it also eventually had all of those other things as well. Gary (later Gary and Rob) were struggling to stay a step or two ahead of their ravenous pack of players, throwing out whatever they thought would make for a fun and challenging game. "Setting verisimilitude" and thematic or tonal consistency were surely very low on their list of concerns (if they were concerned about such things at all), and were only applied retroactively, when Gary began looking back at this material for purposes of commercial publication.

We know all of this now, but I didn't know any of it in the spring or early summer of 1985 when I naively bought module EX1. In those days modules came shrinkwrapped, so unless we had a friend who already owned a copy (and was willing to share - at least in my circle there was a lot of territoriality over modules, and it was understood to be "bad form" to buy a module that someone else already owned and had expressed their intent to run) we generally only had a few things to go on when purchasing new adventures - the title, the cover illustration, the cover blurb, and (pretty much only in the case of modules written by Gary Gygax) the author's name. Given all of that, Dungeonland seemed like a safe purchase. Here's the cover-blurb:
As adventurers you may think you have seen everything: certainly your skills have brought you through unimaginable dangers. But now you suddenly find yourself in a place unlike any through which you have traveled: astounding, dangerous, and even amusing things confront you as you journey, both indoors and outdoors, through the unique and wondrous realm of Dungeonland.
This module was first conceived by E. Gary Gygax as part of the Greyhawk Castle dungeon complex and has been the source of challenge and fun for many skilled players of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. It is finally available to all players and can be added to your existing campaign with ease.
Dungeonland is also designed so that it may be used with its soon-to-be-released companion scenario, Dungeon Module EX2, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. Still, Dungeonland may easily be played on its own, and should offer hours of excitement in its strange landscape.  
Understandably, I was very excited to dig into this module. Greyhawk Castle! This was before Temple of Elemental Evil came out, so I was very curious what a "big dungeon" from Gary Gygax would look like, and thought that's what this was going to be, at least in part. While there are hints that an astute reader might pick up on, there's no direct reference to Lewis Carroll's works here (intentionally - in his introduction to the adventure Gary stresses keeping its gimmick a secret from the players for as long as possible, on the belief that it will make it more enjoyable for them if they figure it out during play rather than knowing it up-front), and at age 10 I certainly wasn't sharp enough to pick up on it until I'd already put down my cash, rushed home, and torn off the shrinkwrap.

To say I was disappointed by the result would be a massive understatement. It not only didn't match my expectations, it didn't seem like anything I could (or would have any desire to) run. I hadn't read Alice in Wonderland at the time, but I'd seen movies and knew the story more-or-less through cultural osmosis, and considered it something for kids. The idea of an Alice-themed D&D adventure seemed very lame and cheesy to me and I knew it would feel exactly the same way to my players - that they would hate it and resent it and blame me for subjecting them to it. I didn't "get" the adventure, and felt like I'd been misled and cheated.

Part of it was definitely a disconnect between how the game was conceived and played in the early 70s vs. how it was perceived by its audience in the mid 80s, which is to say that in the former period there was an implicit understanding that the whole thing was fundamentally kind of a joke and not to be taken too seriously, which was almost totally obscured in the 80s-era material. Even with these modules it's hidden pretty deeply - the tone is still serious, and Gary urges the DM to run the adventure "strictly" in order to keep players off-guard. He also emphasizes that the original level from Greyhawk Castle was a "change of pace" from the usual activity of the campaign, which I'm not sure was actually all that true, but suggests that had Gary gotten around to publishing the rest of Greyhawk Castle as he had intended to its tone likely would have been more serious than these levels.

The end result is that this module offered pretty much exactly the opposite of what I wanted - it was a "change of pace" exception to the usual mode of adventures, when that usual mode of adventures is precisely what I was craving (and didn't realize until, really, decades later that I was already getting indirectly - that much of Greyhawk Castle was just a generic monster-filled maze no different than what you could get using the random charts in the books (or something like TSR's Dungeon Geomorphs and Monster & Treasure Assortments) and that a lot of the interesting and unique areas had already been secretly recycled into Gary's other products - S3, S4, WG5, and likely even more that we don't yet know about since we haven't seen Gary's unpublished Castle Greyhawk manuscripts - it's certainly possible (likely even) that there are sections of S1, B2, the G series, and the D series that were lifted more-or-less whole out of Greyhawk Castle.

So I filed this one away as a bad/mistaken purchase - alongside a lot of other stuff, mostly from the B and X series - and didn't look at it again until many years later. By then my perspective had changed - I was in my twenties, had read the Lewis Carroll books, had played D&D with Gary Gygax, and through reading and running The Abduction of Good King Despot had more of an understanding of the tone and pace Gary was going for with these adventures (since that is the other adventure that's probably most similar to this one in style and tone). I understood better how these adventures could be fun in play, why they were popular with the players and Gary liked to run them, and felt it was a good idea to publish them. It also helped that I had EX2 at this time, which I didn't as a kid - it seems more straightforward and action-oriented than EX1, with fewer vaguely-detailed (if you haven't read the books) roleplaying scenes such as "[The Mad Hatter's] conversation will be strange indeed—asking riddles that have no answer, making inappropriate statements, asserting perverse logic, twisting questions, and so on—all interspersed with inquiries about tea, demands to move down the table to a fresh place, and interruptions to speak with the March Hare or to devil the Dormouse." No wonder that at age 10 I had no idea what to make of that!

I have a much higher opinion of these adventures now than I did as a kid, and place both of them squarely within  the canon. They remind me of playing with Gary - his emphasis on fast-paced action and really difficult challenges (and, make no mistake, a lot of the encounters in these two modules are very difficult!) leavened with banter and humor and an understanding that it's still just a game and shouldn't really be taken too seriously. I also value that they are (along with WG6) the most direct glimpses we ever got of Greyhawk Castle - that although the material was surely expanded and polished and modified for publication, its bones are presumably still pretty similar to what players in Gary's basement experienced c. 1974. And, being familiar with the source material, I have much more appreciation for how cleverly Gary adapted it to the AD&D paradigm in a way that both supports and subverts pre-existing expectations and highlights the ways in which AD&D is both close to and different than traditional pre-swords & sorcery fantasy and fairy tales. I understand why Gary liked to run this adventure for adults new to D&D. As a kid I didn't, because it seemed strange and dumb to me that he would use an adventure that's so unlike the standard game, but I see now that that's actually one of the strengths of the thing (assuming the audience is familiar with Carroll's books): they come in with some familiarity with the setting, subject matter, and plot, and by experiencing the differences between the story they know and the game they're playing, they come away with an understanding of "what D&D is all about" in a way that sending them into the Caves of Chaos probably wouldn't get across.

Which isn't to say the adventures are perfect. I like the way that both of them start out as open-ended "sandboxy" explorations where the players can move about the area having encounters at their own pace in their own order, but find it mildly frustrating the way that both of them eventually narrow into a linear, scripted finale that too-closely tries to track the action of the books. While it's easy to second-guess things after the fact - without the pressures of production deadlines and a firmly-mandated 32 page maximum - I feel that both modules would have been stronger if they'd stayed more open-ended and allowed more possibility for the players to employ different approaches and maybe establish more of a long-term presence in the area.

The thing I still hate the most is the scripted chase at the end of EX1 with the "Potemkin dungeon map" that shows hallways and doors but says nothing of what lies behind them. This was the first module where I recall seeing something like this and I immediately hated it. Alas, it became much more common in later years - by the time I stopped buying rpg adventures in the early 90s actual complete maps had disappeared almost completely, and the genesis of the trend can be laid right here at Gary Gygax's feet. I don't know if it was Gary who came up with this, or if it was suggested by Frank Mentzer (whose adventures - mostly created as RPGA tournaments - were always much more linear in this manner), or someone else at TSR, but whoever is to blame, I find it annoying to this day. A map of the entire dungeon level needn't have taken up any more space (since the partial map gets a mostly-blank page to itself) and even if it was entirely unkeyed except for the chase-route that still would have made it seem less forced and railroady, and (at least for me) would have been inspirational - like the mostly-unkeyed underworld map in D1-3, this would have been a ready-made place for expansion and customization. I still like these modules, but this is without a doubt an error and a missed opportunity.

A few more random notes and observations about these modules:

1) Their covers are reversed: the cover of EX1 depicts an encounter from EX2 (the roc in Area E), while the cover of EX2 depicts an encounter from EX1 (the hangman tree in Part 3, Area I). Oops!

2) In addition to several monsters from Fiend Folio (clubnek, bullywug, kuo toa, lamia noble), the "new" monster types introduced in the modules (hangman tree, executioner's hood, giant bee, giant dragonfly, eblis, lightning quasi-elemental, oliphant), and several unique "nonesuch" monsters (the jub-jub bird, jabberwocky, bandersnatch, etc.) two monsters from module S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth also appear: a behir and a marid. The latter includes a note referring the reader back to module S4 for further info, but the former does not. In the few months between publication of these modules and the Monster Manual II I wonder if that confused or annoyed anybody.

3) A full write-up for Murlynd was published in Dragon magazine #71 (later reprinted in the World of Greyhawk boxed set) which doesn't match the details given for him in EX2: in the latter he's an 18th level magic-user with 77 hit points, in the former he's a level 12/12/12 magic-user/illusionist/paladin with 135 hit points and psionic powers, as well as different stats and equipment (though both versions are armed with techno-magical pistols). While I believe the Dragon version was published first, its text suggests the EX2 version was written first, and the Dragon version represents a revision/expansion of the concept.

4) The outdoor maps in the two modules have different printed scales (50 feet per hex in EX1, 100 feet per hex in EX2) and as far as I'm able to determine, both of them are wrong. The scale of the EX1 map is definitely supposed to be 50 yards per hex (comparing to the scale of the other maps - the palace, manse, and woods of trees and giant fungi - makes this clear). I don't see any reason why the EX2 map should have a different scale (though there's no textual proof that it's incorrect the way there is for EX1).

5) The modules include some tidbits from Unearthed Arcana, a reminder that the material in that book was mostly written several years before the book was published: (a) the numbered soldiers in EX1 are all stated to be "broadsword specialists" and have corresponding increased # of attacks and "to hit" and damage bonuses; (b) two NPC thieves (the Jack of Hearts in EX1 and the King's Messenger in EX2) are both stated to be wearing elfin chain mail (though it doesn't reduce any of their thieving abilities the way it does in UA - suggesting perhaps that nuance was something added by the developers of the book (Jeff Grubb and Frank Mentzer) rather than Gary?).

1 comment:

  1. In general, I agree that these were disappointments because it wasn't enough. People wanted the D&D world material that would immerse us in "medievalisms with beholders" and it was endless superfluous tangents and the actual product never happened before D&D products died forever in 1985. Thats the biggest problem with corporations continuing D&D material. Its shuffling around in a darkness created by the non-existence of a Castle Greyhawk and related environs. Endless waves of Nonsense & Ninnies and no one can get back to the base because of all the crud generated in the lack of Castle Greyhawk including Dragonlance and Mentzerisms. The Alice adventure sticks out harder because of this lack.

    In regards to elfin chain. There are two versions. Non-magical (original & drow) and magical (UA add on). Most people that I know just ignored the old versions.