Tournament Modules – A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity

As mentioned in my first GenCon post, I got to play a session of A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity this year, and later A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords as well.  I’ve been aware of this series for a while and vaguely knew it had a reputation of being a good group of modules, but had never played or read them.  I enjoyed myself enough that I bought the modules at the auction, which I may have done anyway, but having just played the module definitely left me excited to buy it.  It’s definitely a fun one and highly recommended.

What’s really interesting about this module though is its glimpse into the AD&D tournament scene of early GenCons.  The entire series of modules was originally run as a multi-part tournament at GenCon XIII (1980), a fact I know from reading the module itself.  You see, the module includes copious information about running it in a tournament setting.  I was aware from Delta’s description that the G series modules were likewise originally a tournament, and included some notes for scoring.  I still haven’t read those modules yet either (don’t want to spoil the surprise until Delta completes his run), but I suspect they’re not as detailed about tournament play as this one is.

A1 includes a separate set of maps for tournament play, reduced in scope from the full maps, though likely this is backwards and the smaller maps were expanded for the module instead.  It also has a lot of notes throughout for how specific rooms function in tournament play, the scoring system, and the original pre-genned characters used to play it.  It also has an interesting description about how the module was broken up into rounds for the original tournament:

Originally run at GenCon XIII, this module contains only two parts of the seven part ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS™ Open.  … In the original tournament, modules A1, A2, and part of A3 were used for the first rounds, the second part of A3 was the semi-final, and A4 was the final round.  A1 and A2 each contain two sessions (the above ground and underground sessions).  Therefore there are 5 first rounds, each requiring nine players for a total of fourty-five players in the tournament (minimum).

A1 pretty clearly delineates the two parts, and the funny thing is that while I recall in our running the DM saying something like “you made it a good way through”, in fact I see that we completed exactly the first half of the module, or one round.  Wow, they really had these things timed well to fit a standard 4-hour slot.

What I found really interesting though is the fact that there are 5 different first rounds.  My theory is that in each time slot (say 8-12 Thursday or 12-4 Friday) they ran a different module.  This way nobody who played in a later time slot could gain an unfair advantage by questioning a player in an earlier time slot.  Of course that doesn’t answer the question of how many people from the first round get to proceed on to the semi-final, nor how many play in the final.  I’d be very curious to know how they worked that, though I suppose at that point you also have to know how many total people they actually had, as I assume they ran with many more than the minimum 45.

One thing that tickles me about the idea of multiple first rounds though is the parity with the fiction.  I love the idea of there actually being multiple teams all dispatched at the same time to infiltrate the slavers’ hideouts, with only one of those groups making it through to their innermost sanctum.  Granted there’s nothing really pushing this idea in any of the modules, but I bet having them all played simultaneously at the convention really led to that feeling.  I can just imagine the gamers hanging out during lunch, chatting with each other about which approach their group tried to get at those pesky slavers.

Another interesting thing about the printed module is comparing the tournament maps to the campaign maps.  The tournament maps are in fact extremely linear.  Again I’m surprised to discover this, as I felt when playing that we had made some choices in our path.  It’s possible our DM was running the expanded campaign map and that we simply managed to luckily hew to the tournament path.  Personally, I’m a big fan of having multiple in-roads and some feeling of choice in the game.  Were I designing a tournament game, I think I’d like it to look like an inverted tree, with lots of entry points all leading down to a single final climax area.  But I digress…

I also notice that anywhere where there’s a trap with random damage there’s a note regarding specific damage for use in the tournament.  Wow, they really worked hard at making these things “fair”.  It seems pretty silly given that combat will always be very random.  I suppose at some point someone must have complained about losing a tournament simply because their version of the trap caused more damage than someone else’s.  Given that “number of players to survive” is usually a factor in the scoring, I guess it’s understandable.

Anyway, those are my thoughts reading through A1, A2 is next on my list.  Also, I definitely have to find an excuse to run these things.  The two I played were great fun, and I’m hoping for more of the same from A2 and A3.  Though I have to admit, having now read both halves of A1, the half we played is clearly the more interesting half.

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3 Comments

  1. I remember when the A modules first came out, and they were very exciting with great art and imagination-grabbing set pieces. (Ah, those balance-on-the edge jail pits!) But I very ambivalent about them now. They represent an enormous shift in adventure design from the earlier G/D modules — G/D has nothing about tournament play whatsoever in them (aside from blurb on front cover). And my impression is that there was no change from tournament to campaign — just way, way more in the modules than could be explored in 4 hours (and not linear, and no expected climax/boss end scene). So I can see the divide from Gygax/G-D naturalism to the “every area has a critical encounter” expectation, which runs through to 4E, in these A1-4 tournament areas.

    Also, the campaign temple layout (upstairs) in A1 makes no sense whatsoever. There’s no access from east wing to west wing (other than a muddy tunnel below), the burned buildings would have taken up all of the courtyard, apparently tunnels run within the 10′ curtain walls, it’s hard to tell if certain areas are outbuildings or enclosed or ***, etc. It hurts my brain in a Lovecraftian-Escherian sense when I look at that map.

  2. They represent an enormous shift in adventure design from the earlier G/D modules — G/D has nothing about tournament play whatsoever in them (aside from blurb on front cover).

    The theory of a corporate (TSR) or cultural (convention go-ers) shift in design sensibilities is very interesting, and I wish we had more data points to prove or disprove it. The G series was originally run at Origins in 78, and the A series at GenCon 80. That’s a pretty short time frame for such a shift. Might not it also be possibly that this is just a style difference between Gygax and other module authors? Are there later works by Gygax that do not include the same naturalism as the G-series?

    Another interesting nugget learned from the A-series — convention games at the time appear to have been just 3 hours long, not 4! I haven’t read the G series myself yet (want to finish playing them first). Do you think they were not expanded on at all for publication as modules?

    I wish we had better records of the actual tournament materials used at the early GenCons. If those artifacts exist, however, they’re far too collectible for me to ever hope to see them.

  3. Gygax’s style seemed pretty consistent to me over the TSR era. His “Isle of the Ape” adventure was released in 1985 (last year there) and is quite similar, nonlinear/sandboxy, and something of an explicit counter to Dragonlance-type stuff.

    Here’s my primary clue about G/D being the same for tournament & campaign play. From the article Dragon #19, p. 3 on that Origins tournament — regarding the top party’s adventure in G2:

    What is truly amazing about this second round is how much they didn‘t kill and still managed to get into the third and final round. I’m sure that they mentally kicked themselves for what they missed when they got a chance to read over the material in DUNGEON MODULE G2 (GLACIAL RIFT OF THE FROST GIANT JARL), which is also available from TSR for $4.49.

    [I had them for this round, and indeed, they missed a lot. However, clever questioning led to clues which compensated for the low kill ratio. — K.E.!]

    Unless that’s just marketing B.S…

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