Into the Silver Age

Delta posted a thought provoking comment on my last post, to which I started to write a reply.  That reply got so long I realized it warranted it’s own post, so here it is.  In his comment, Delta said about the adventure Into the Forgotten Realms:

Greenwood did really ring my “new school” bell with this adventure. The main bullets on that are (1) emphasis on character role-playing/acting (as I read the text & scoring system), (2) surprise on our part from how few monsters we were fighting, and (3) spotlight on NPCs.

#1 Emphasis on character role-playing/acting:

This is definitely present, but I would say not a major focus of the adventure.  Each character has a paragraph or so of background which players may choose to portray during the adventure, but aren’t tied to the background of the adventure itself nor the other characters.  The intro to the adventure does say that it has an “accent on roleplay” and there are significant points for the “best roleplayer” as voted by the other players and seen by the DM.  However, I often wonder if “roleplay” during this time period really meant “play-acting” as it does to us today.  If we consider the entire activity as a roleplaying game, then is not coming up with clever solutions to problems good roleplay?  Does it have to really be limited to just play-acting?  I suspect, but have no proof, that back in the day “good roleplay” was the whole package, not just talking in funny voices or doing unexpected things because it’s “in character”.  There is an argument for tracing the roleplay empahsis of this adventure on towards stuff like the infamous Dragonlance adventures, but I would argue that it’s like comparing sipping lemonade to being crushed to death by a lemon tree.

#2 Less fights

There are definitely less fights in this adventure than many other more traditional old school adventures.  However, I might actually blame this more on the tournament format than being new school.  One thing I rather like about this adventure is that it can be completed in the 4 hour time allotment, unlike many other tournament games.  It might be argued that this is specifically to guarantee that the players reach the climax encounter, which in turn argues for a pre-envisioned plot to the adventure.  That’s tenuous though — does not G2 have a Frost Giant Jarl in it somewhere?  I actually don’t know, I’ve never read it, but I assume it must.  Would it be a better convention game if the party had a reasonable chance of actually reaching that encounter?

#3 Spotlight on NPCs

Yup, this adventure definitely has some interesting NPCs, ones that the party is meant to interact with in ways other than combat, though combat is not out of the picture.  Let me compare this to another module that I know quite well and feel is definitely old school in format: L1 The Secret of Bone Hill.  Specifically let’s look at the titular dungeon, the castle on top of bone hill.

In Into the Forgotten Realms, the party invades an abandoned school of wizardry, controlled by a lich who is described as insane, still believing the school is operational.  The lich is designed to be too tough for the party to handle, and the hope is that the party will use his insanity to manipulate him in some clever way to either escape or possibly even destroy him.  In The Secret of Bone Hill, the castle is controlled by an evil wizard and populated during the day by bugbears and at night by undead. The only description of their relationship is in the following text:

During the day the ruin’s upper level is guarded by a band of bugbears… supported by an evil magician.  At night, the ruin is run by the undead.

That is all we get.  I think it asks more questions than it answers.  However, when I incorporated this into my campaign I didn’t bother figuring out more until the party encountered it.  It came to me on the spur of the moment: the wizard is cursed such that enemies he kills will always return as undead to haunt him.  He has hired bugbears to help defend his castle, thus circumventing the curse, however he continues to be plagued by old enemies he killed himself in the past.  The party’s actions and a few other tidbits from the text informed this idea: the courtyard is scorched in a few places as if from fireballs (fireballs I decided the wizard regularly uses to blow away the annoying undead that gather there and get in his way, but they always return).  The areas that lead to more powerful undead are all wizard locked (the wizard must have trapped his more irksome returning enemies in his basement such that they couldn’t harass him).  The wizard did not kill one of the party members when could have easily done so (he doesn’t want yet more undead bothering him).

Did the author (Len Lakolfka) have any of this already in mind when he wrote the module?  I have no idea.  It’s possible, a lot of clues do point in this direction, on the other hand some of these clues, especially the last one listed above, arose directly from play that has nothing to do with the text.  That, in my mind, is the essence of old school right there.  Only the facts are included, the story arises from play not from preconceived ideas from the module author.  Into the Forgotten Realms is full of preconceived ideas of how the adventure should go.  The Secret of Bone Hill has none.

However, there is one other major difference between these two modules besides their dates of publication.  The Secret of Bone Hill is clearly written for incorporation into a home campaign, while Into the Forgotten Realms is a tournament game written for one-off convention play.  It’s much harder to create the kind of story I got out of Bone Hill when you only have 4 hours with your players, who quite possibly you’ve never met in your life before.  Perhaps it’s even impossible.

Hmm, is it possible that the silver age grew out of convention play?  Perhaps the need for story arose not from the home campaign, but for convention games, where a satisfying story and climax that can evolve slowly at home must be crammed into a single four hour session.  When we played G2 at HelgaCon, it was very enjoyable, but more than one player was unsatisfied at the end when we discovered how poorly we had performed, and that we had been duped with a red herring. Discussion was had on what would have happened in a home campaign when we would have had enough time to make a second trip into the lair, but clearly that was not to be.  We must content ourselves with the story of “the players got duped and the frost giant jarl wins”, a story I’m not sure everyone at the table was satisfied with.

What’s the trick?  How do you create and run a satisfying convention game that includes the same elements as a home campaign but fits in a tiny bite sized format?  Is it even worth pursuing this goal if it really was one of the contributing factors to the end of the golden age of old school D&D?  My quest for answers will continue this August, as it turns out I am running two very different games at GenCon.  One very much has a preconceived story at its core, while the other is filled with random elements with little effort made to tie them together.  I am eager to find out which will produce a more enjoyable four hour experience.

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6 Comments

  1. You mention the Frost Giant Jarl. That’s actually a good example of the difference between old school and new school. The point of G2 is not to confront the Jarl, but to discover clues (which will lead on to G3 and ultimately into the Depths of the Oerth and even into the Abyss, but that’s not important right now) about the Giant incursions into the Human lands. If the party ends up confronting the Jarl, that’s one possible outcome, but it is not the only one available. It’s not a “Boss Fight”, but rather one possible way – even a set of possible ways – for the scenario to play out.

  2. Very good stuff, I like this back-and-forth. 🙂

    (1) Your argument that the term “role-playing” is not necessarily character acting would be totally convincing to me, up until I read this particular module text. I feel like mysteries (a) “what does role-playing mean for scoring here”, and (b) “what is this copious background information for” answer each other plug-and-socket style. For earlier stuff I would absolutely agree with you.

    (2) There was a clear switch in tourney modules early on. The very, very first ones (G1-3 and D1-3) act like there’s no distinction between writing for tournament and campaign publishing, and they’re clearly much too big to clear out in 4 hours. Stuff right after starts making a clear distinction, highlighting the “here’s the linear part that you use for a 4-hour tourney game” vs. “here’s the greatly expanded part for a campaign game” (A1-4 being a great example of that).

    (3) Your distinction between NPC presentation in L1 and Into the Forgotten Realms is spot-on (and very characteristic). In G2 there is an actual Frost Giant Jarl boss in the last room — but he is as cursorily presented as something like L1. There are a very small number of clues in the adventure about how he interacts with others (a pass insignia, a written message). He feels privileged to get an actual name; no one else does (including his wife).

    Personally, I always felt that fleshing out these NPCs with campaign tie-ins and motivations was the easy part, as opposed to getting a nicely designed map and creative, statted-up encounters (exactly as you experienced with L1). I know some people who feel totally the opposite.

    Great to think about deeply!

  3. @delta:
    Personally, I always felt that fleshing out these NPCs with campaign tie-ins and motivations was the easy part, as opposed to getting a nicely designed map and creative, statted-up encounters (exactly as you experienced with L1).

    I totally agree, and I think this begs the question: is there a such thing as an old school convention game? I’m not asking if back in the day they actually ran games at conventions, clearly they did. However, the obviously old school printed material as you said makes no distinction between tournament and convention play. Only with the arrival of the new school do you start to see stuff specifically written to fit the convention style format.

    I love running old school stuff for my regular campaign, but I also run a lot of convention games, and I feel very challenged trying to find a way to run such games in an old school style. Without the context of a larger campaign, it’s pretty much impossible to fill in those delightful gaps found in old school material. There’s no campaign to tie into, and thus you’re left with a pretty cut and dry running of the adventure.

    Perhaps it’s a foolish pursuit, perhaps a convention game will simply never be as good as a home campaign.

  4. I agree that it’s very much a dilemma. There’s some argument that the AD&D rules were crafted for the purpose of standardizing tournament play (although personally I think that was a secondary issue). So at least it was clearly a priority/on the radar of designers in those days.

  5. I wonder too if perhaps one might draw the connection that the pursuit of standardized tournament play is what lead to the focus on story driven games and thus the end of the old school. You might also say that the focus on story driven games in turn lead to living campaigns, and thus the death of more traditional tournaments. The dilemma of how to present the enjoyment of a long term campaign to the masses of convention goers may well be the root cause of the current shift in the official game and the bifurcation of the consumer base.

  6. My top theory is that the silver-age writers wanted to be dramatists primarily, and game designers secondarily (or thought a dramatic approach to games was an improvement). Greenwood’s FR were originally literary stories when he was a child. Hickman’s early school/jobs were in theater and TV direction. (Later they both did more novels than games; compare to someone like Greg Costikyan, e.g.) My experience at the time was there was a real ideological “push” to get more story-based gaming in all contexts (e.g., Dragonlance).

    So my personal hypothesis would be the tourney issue was secondary or even at cross-purposes to that. Like by 1990 the 2E AD&D books had a lot of “you could do it like A or like B depending on your story” non-rule text (see: magic item creation & valuation), which was kind of the opposite of 1E’s standardizing things for tournament play.

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