Tuesday, May 16, 2017

An Exercise in Nostalgic Futility

A reader recently asked me about T1 The Haunted Keep from my “Gaming Artifacts: Homemade Modules” post. Back in my teenage days during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying” (the mid 1980s) I wrote several Dungeons & Dragons modules to run with the neighborhood kids, complete with maps and keyed texts in the style of TSR’s own releases. T1 The Haunted Keep was my continuation of the sample dungeon at the back of the Moldvay-edition D&D Basic rules. All my work from this period is irredeemably horrible, yet I keep these artifacts because they were an integral part of my earliest, eager gaming days. And that enthusiasm suddenly returned when someone expressed interest in seeing at least the maps to gain some insight about how I developed the dungeon as a base for a family of wererats and their marauding goblin allies. At first I had grand designs of typing up my handwritten text, cleaning it up a bit, rendering the maps in a better style than pencil-on-graph-paper, updating the stats to my oft-overlooked AnyOSR Key system-neutral notations, and releasing it with retrospective design notes for fun. Then I realized the idea was distracting me from my current distraction (developing The Greydeep Marches setting) from what I really should be working on (The Infinite Cathedral setting) and that it was channeling my nostalgic enthusiasm for the creations of my youth. Once I calmed down, refocused, and realized bringing it to publication in any form was not a good use of my time, the brief experience provided an opportunity to reflect on my past work to see what made an impression on a teenage roleplaying gamer in the mid-1980s.

The artifact itself looks like many of the scenarios I created at the time. It sits in a manila folder the front of which mimics – in my crude style – the cover of a TSR module at the time, with a “T1” designation in the corner, a diagonal banner declaring “For Dungeons & Dragons,” the suggested character levels, a brief paragraph’s description, a minimalist colored pencil illustration, and a “PSG” logo emulating the old “TSR: The Game Wizards” bearded head logo. The folder served as the cardstock module cover within which I taped two pages of maps, one showing the ground levels of the gatehouse’s east and west towers, the other showing two underground levels. The booklet – written on large-ruled loose-leaf paper – contained a cover that also emulated the interior booklet cover of TSR’s modules and 21 pages of text, all taped together rather than stapled. This was well before personal computers and online self-publishing, so everything was handwritten and drawn.

My inspiration was “An Example of Dungeon Design: The Haunted Keep (1st Level)” from pages B55-57 of the D&D Basic Rulebook (Moldvay edition). It seemed like an interesting exercise in creating a dungeon, though, considering how “refined” this effort seemed when compared with my others, I probably did not attempt this when I first immersed myself in D&D in 1982. The sample dungeon appeared in the rulebook’s “Part 8: Dungeon Master Information,” which included lots of solid, concise gamemaster tips, wandering monster tables, and the obligatory script for a “Sample Dungeon Expedition” (almost as ubiquitous an element as the “What Is A Roleplaying Game” section). The adventure’s three pages include procedures for creating the dungeon premise, stocking it with monsters and treasure, dungeon key entries for each room, and a map of the keep’s east tower. A fourth page offered an elevational map of the gatehouse’s two towers with a suggestion (without room keys) about what lurked beneath the ruins, along with a general key of map symbols one might use. I totally ignored the suggestions in the elevational, preferring to create my own interpretation of the ruins and caverns. While it serves as a ready-to-play dungeon delve, Moldvay’s intent of providing an example for design was clear: “Part of this dungeon is already designed, and enough other details are provided so the DM need not ‘start from scratch.’” The invitation to creation was continued in the keyed room #4: “Underneath a rug in the middle of the floor is a trapdoor to the 2nd level.”

Wanting to create a thorough adventure, my own efforts began in dutifully copying Moldvay’s text as it would appear in a published module, including the relevant portions of “A. Choose A Scenario” and the keyed room text itself. After that I mapped out and keyed two underground levels, then the gatehouse’s west tower, where the staircase from the lowest level led. My own expansion of that wasn’t terribly inspired, though it reflects my impressions of what a D&D scenario should include at the time: lots of monsters, lots of treasure, with a few slightly interesting encounters here and there and a thin veneer of an overall theme. Members of the goblin raiding party occupied most of the second level along with a few other odd monsters and lots of junk: dust, bones, cobwebs, piles of debris. The roughly hewn third level contained the wererats’ main lair where they sat counting the treasure from the raids, though one reached this chamber only through a labyrinth haunted by various undead, a doppleganger posing as a captured villager, and, of course, an owl bear. The west tower, where any escaping wererats fled, housed more goblins from the raiding party and their wolf allies. I have no idea if I followed the instructions Moldvay provided for stocking dungeon rooms. I doubt I followed the guidelines for determining treasure. My young and overly enthusiastic self obviously fell victim to the Monty Haul syndrome in an effort to more quickly boost characters from the basic levels to those capable of tackling higher level adventures. I also made sure characters had a chance to gain a bonus against the wererats by planting a hidden sword +1, +2 against lycanthropes behind a tapestry in one of the first rooms on level two.

When someone on the internet expressed interest in seeing how I’d expanded Moldvay’s “Haunted Keep” I reviewed my old version, let it sit for a while, returned to it, and suddenly became possessed with an urge to revise it to share with others. For some reason I felt it wasn’t so bad when compared with my other work from that period. I’ll also admit I wanted some engagement from sharing it on the internet. I intended Beneath the Haunted Keep (the new title I’d chosen) to serve as a test bed of sorts for future projects suitable for D&D and the plethora of OSR games available today. I started revisions: reworking the introduction to reflect that I was cutting out Moldvay’s text to the east tower rooms; tidying and embellishing many room descriptions (my players at the time needed little more than a description that “you see six hobgoblins” to spur them into combat); drafting Any OSR Key stats for monsters; and fixing my tedious descriptive language. Yet I wanted to preserve the authenticity of the original version, so I kept encounters and treasure the same and relied on the existing maps (which, thankfully, I hadn’t yet wasted my time in rendering in a better style). While typing each original room description I realized how half a page of handwriting comes out to one thin paragraph; my young self seemed so proud of the prodigious 21-page module (including Moldvay’s room keys). The more rooms I typed and revised and the more I read my foolishly simplistic monster- and treasure-filled encounters the more I realized this was not something I wanted to share. I stopped two-thirds through the second level’s room key, leaving the third level and the gatehouse west tower in the now-closed folder for T1 The Haunted Keep. Once I finish this blog entry it’s going back on the shelf with my other terrible adventure modules from that time.

For those interested in having a glimpse at my young self’s extraordinary mediocrity I offer the text from “Room #1” on the dungeon’s second level (the first one after descending through the trap door in the gatehouse’s east tower):

Room #1:This room appears to be very dusty and unused, but has no furniture. Piles of wood splinters and cloth are scattered around the room. Anyone walking into the room will only notice the robber fly (AC 6, hd 2, hp 8, MV 90 (30)/180 (60), #AT 1, D 1-8, Save F1, ML 8, AL Neutral) on a 1 or 2 on a d6. Otherwise he will jump the first person to enter the room with surprise. In one pile is a leather pouch with 85 gp in it.

Here’s how I revised it, including Any OSR Key notation for the fly:

Room #1: A layer of dust covers the piles of splintered wood and moldy cloth scattered around this room. Characters only notice the giant fly lurking here on a d6 roll of 1 or 2; otherwise it ambushes a random character, gaining surprise. Anyone searching the debris piles uncovers a tattered leather sack with 85 gold pieces in it.

Giant Fly. Basic (1–3); AT: bite; DF: tough exoskeleton; Skills: fly; Morale: moderate.

I’m not even going to attempt to pick this apart beyond saying it’s a mediocre encounter yielding way too much treasure for the trouble. Most of the adventure reads like this, with a few not-as-mediocre rooms with notable encounters; the second level’s “Room #8” comes to mind, where a murky sinkhole contains a +1 mace, though a gray ooze lurks on the ceiling, waiting to drop on preoccupied characters.

The Wise Man of the Mountains once said (and I’m paraphrasing here) one’s freely released game materials should have the same high quality one would expect if they were for sale (if I could find the quote I’d use it word-for-word, but, alas, it’s lost somewhere on the ever-changing surface of the internet); meaning one should never upload, even for free, something that isn’t the best work possible. After some initial examination and attempted revision I realized Beneath the Haunted Keep was not the kind of fantasy roleplaying game adventure I’d care to release to the public, either as a curiosity from my earliest gaming days or as a nostalgic exercise in revision. No amount of work could redeem this. The adventure doesn’t reflect my current style, even for dungeon delves; I’d be more apt to entirely scrap the work my young self had done and start from scratch...if I had time and saw some benefit from the effort. Looking back on my earliest unpublished efforts creating adventures reminds me how far I’ve come in those 35+ years, how much I’ve learned and change, and how much I still have to learn.