Friday, July 23, 2021

Gary Gygax's Necropolis - AD&D Conversion Notes

As I've mentioned many times before, I was lucky enough to play the Tomb of Rahotep section of Gary Gygax's magnum opus adventure Necropolis with the man himself back in 1988. At the time, the adventure was planned for publication under the generic-stats "Fantasy Master" line, but in those games Gary used AD&D rules. The PCs were all 18th level and the adventure was billed as the toughest and deadliest thing Gary Gygax had ever written - the next step in challenge and difficulty beyond the infamous Tomb of Horrors. It lived up to that billing and then some, combining the deviously punitive and unfair tricks and traps from that module with a ton of really difficult combat that puts the Hall of the Fire Giant King and Isle of the Ape to shame. This was, to me, the ultimate expression of AD&D - by far the most difficult and challenging adventure I ever played in, but also by far the most fun and exhilarating. 

Alas, Gary's company New Infinities closed up shop before Necropolis was published, and when it finally did emerge five years later it had been converted to Gygax's Dangerous Journeys: Mythus system which (TSR's lawsuit claims notwithstanding) is a totally different and incompatible game system that maintained and expanded the flavor and feel of Gygax's AD&D but with a totally different set of rules. A decade later Necromancer Games released a version of the adventure converted to the then current d20/D&D 3.0 rules, but that wasn't much help to AD&D fans.

In much there same way as I mined ideas from Dangerous Journeys and converted them over to AD&D in The Heroic Legendarium, I also wanted to be able to run this adventure under AD&D to recreate something like my experience playing in it. So, relying on my memories of those games, as well as my knowledge of both the AD&D and Mythus rules, I created a conversion document for the final section of the adventure, the Tomb of Rahotep, and ran it for an all-star group of players at SoCal Minicon in 2010, where it lived upon to its reputation as the ultimate meat-grinder - to quote one of the players from that game, "Gary must have been in a very, very dark place when he wrote this module."

Around that same time, Necromancer Games' assets passed on to Frog God Games and I learned from my friend Matt Finch (one of the principals in that operation) that their license for Necropolis was one of the assets they had rights to and that eventually they were likely to produce a new edition converted to the Swords & Wizardry retro-clone system. I mentioned the conversion work I'd already done (and the basis for it from having played in it with Gary) and he assured me that when the time came they would definitely reach out to me to leverage that knowledge and work. 

That was the last I heard about this until yesterday when I learned that Frog God has launched a Necropolis Kickstarter for 5E and S&W. I wasn't consulted, which is okay (although it would have been nice if I had been), but what really bothered me about the announcement is the repeated notes that the adventure is "based on the original work by Gary Gygax" but has been "updated and rewritten" (further quotes from the Kickstarter comments: "a very deep conversion, with lots of changes" and "the essential plot is the same, as are the characters, but it's a very heavy re-write"). Compounding those red flags is the fact that the adventure is being billed for character levels 7-9. There is simply no way that the spirit and feel of the original adventure can be accurately portrayed in the context of a mid-level adventure - the entire premise that this was the ultimately deadly and most challenging adventure to reduce even the most expert veteran players to tears, the capstone achievement in Gary Gygax's adventure-writing career, is undermined by making it suitable for mid-level characters. So although I haven't seen what Frog God is producing, and am sure that in terms of art and cartography and printing quality with deluxe leather-bound hardcovers and such, it will be very nice, the entire premise is fundamentally fatally flawed and it's impossible that this shadow-version won't be an insulting travesty compared to the original.

So, as a counter to that, and because there's no reason to hold onto them now that Frog God isn't interested in them, I've decided to share my conversion notes, based on my memories from those 1988 sessions and as used in that 2010 game, for anyone who's curious. These notes only cover the final section of the adventure (though following their example you could probably convert the rest of the content without too much difficulty) and you need a copy of the original to actually use these notes (they're written based on the Dangerous Journeys version (GDW, 1992) but can presumably also be used with the d20 version (Necromancer Games, 2002) since from what I can tell that was a very close conversion), but using that text and these notes I am confident that the end result is something that will be MUCH closer to Gary's original conception and how it was originally run that whatever ill-conceived, watered-down version Frog God is releasing. 

While obviously not anywhere near as well known as the adventures he wrote for TSR, I remain fully convinced that Necropolis really was Gary's magnum opus as an adventure designer, the ultimate expression of his style and approach to play. And as such it deserves to be preserved in something approximating its original form - as a relentlessly and devastating cruel meat grinder that even the highest-level characters and most expert players will find near-impossible to survive and defeat.

The notes are available for viewing and download here. I hope some of you will get to run it someday for some overconfident players with high level characters and that it will humble and cut them down to size just as Gary intended. Enjoy!