On Gygax Design III

There are like 12,000 terrible modules and adventures.

This hobby is almost 50 years old at this point. There have been literally thousands and thousands of adventures written and are available.

Why are we always playing the same ones? Why do people always fall back on Keep on the Borderlands, Forgotten City, Ghost towers, Horror Tombs,  and Giants in their lairs, leading to drow?

I mean, Modern cinema isn't obsessed with the movies that came out in the 70's. You don't see Deer Hunter being played and replayed over by viewers. (The fact that a significant portion of my readers were not alive when that movie came out, much less have even heard of it. In hindsight maybe it shouldn't have won best picture of 1979 versus Grease and Superman, which you know, weren't even nominated).

It's a joke, surely. But it's not.

We keep replaying the same old old modules because they are good and other adventures are not.

The old masters, Gygax, Jennell, and others—they knew how to write an adventure. Everyone else copied the form, not understanding the intent, and produced jumbled linear messes that are boring and dumb; literally not fun to play. How many good adventures can you name? What percentage is that of 12,000?

In part one we looked at how Gygax presented Keep on the Borderlands in just a page so that Dungeon Masters understood the excitement and wonder that was about to occur. You can't read his introduction without getting hype!

In part two, we looked at how the sequels just presented jumbles of random, useless, and most importantly inaccessible information. More importantly, we saw how Gygax used the physical layout to generate tension in the keep with player desire, a deliberate tactic used to create the tension that emergent play develops from.

The Journey to the Keep

You know how if you want to go on a theme park ride, there's a big sign? You just walk up to it and ride? That can be fun, but it's not an adventure.

You have to find the adventure. Finding the adventure location isn't something that delays play. Eliminating it to "speed things up" is missing the point. The adventure location exists among a living world. Travelling there, through the fantasy realm, to the threshold of chaos cannot be removed simply to get to the combat fasters.

Let's look at these wilderness encounters:

A madman hermit(thief) with a pet lion who wants to attack the party but is friendly first.
A mut pit with a roof and a hole, which lizard men come out one at a time to fight players, until only the women and children are left in the mud hole.
A group of bandits with their eye on the keep and any adventurers
Two spiders who guard the corpse of an ancient elf.

Explicitly, each of these create tension within the game world. This tension drives emergent play. Each is described in a way that makes them easy to represent by the Dungeon Master. All the relevant information is accessible to the players.

I'm not saying it's perfect. There's useless text in there (how many gold and silver pieces each of the different bandit types are carrying.)

But each of the different encounters creates a new tension in the world. Each is memorable and easy to represent. Each inspires other thoughts, questions, and adventure. Each is an event that can go many different ways on how the players approach.

How did "2.2d4 Dire Boars" become a standard?

The Caves

This being a learning module isn't relevant to our discussion, but it does provide some interesting insights into presentation. Gygax cautions at the very front: "Add whatever you feel is appropriate to the description of what they see, but be careful not to give anything away or mislead them." This is a concrete example of how he viewed the Dungeon Master as impartial arbiter of the game.

His description of discovering the caves is short and is entirely devoted to explaining the space in a way that allows us to visualize it, and, of course, setting the tone:
The sunlight is dim, the air dank, there is an oppressive feeling here—as if something evil is watching and waiting to pounce upon you. There are bare, dead trees here and there, and upon one a vulture perches and gazes hungrily at you. A flock of ravens rise croaking from the ground, the beat of their wings and their cries magnified by the terrain to sound loud and horrible. Amongst the litter of rubble, boulders, and dead wood scattered about on the ravine floor, you can see bits of gleaming ivory and white - closer inspection reveals that these are bones and skulls of men, animals, and other thing,. . .You know that you have certainly discovered the Caves Of Chaos.
Here's another thing that's explicit in the module. "With this knowledge, they might be able to set tribes to fighting one another, and then the adventurers can take advantage of the weakened state of the feuding humanoids." In this adventure, indeed in most of his adventures Gygax assume that there will be multiple forces, often in equilibrium that the players will disturb or can leverage as they explore. It's this dynamic response that creates emergent adventure and dramatic scenes.

 On the next article, we'll take a look at they keys for the caves themselves. . .

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  1. I'd say Hollywood was pretty darn obsessed with the genre movies of the late '70s and the '80s - Star Wars is an obvious example - and keeps going back to the well, just as modern comics tropes were largely established by Marvel in the 1960s, and literary SF for many decades by the 1950s - literary SF seems largely degenerate as an art now, and barely about SF any more. Rock music by the 1960s, pop by the 1950s. Hip Hop by the 1990s. Jazz by the 1930s. Non-degenerate classical music (aka film scores) by the 19th century. Non-degenerate art (aka illustration) the same. There is a very common thing that an art form fixes in place quite early on and then keeps referring back.

    1. (By degenerate I mean that it no longer performs its original function - modern art that no one looks at, modern classical music no one wants to listen to, modern SF seems partly degenerate in that few people want to read it and it often has no real speculative element).

    2. What books are you thinking of? I don't really know what's current in literary sci-fi. (I've honestly never been quite sure where the dividing line is between "literary sci-fi" and, I guess, the other kind.)

  2. But each of the different encounters creates a new tension in the world. Can you go into more detail on this? What exactly do you mean by tension in this case?

    1. Uh, yeah.

      I structure my encounters so that there is always, you know, a temptation, as well as difficulties.

      If you dangle gems in front of the players on the way to the inn, they think "That place has a bunch of gems". If you dangle a guard house in front of the players, they think, "Oh, they have a security system."

      Who is the elf? What do we do with the lizard women and children, If there's bandits, won't they strike when the players return from the keep? etc.

      The encounters always create more questions then they answer.

  3. “There are like 12,000 terrible modules and adventures.”

    Like 12000? What is “like 12000”? Is it actually 12000? Is it a number in the ballpark of 12000? Or is it just hyperbole? Is the actual number more like 406? I dunno. But I suspect 12000 is way off.

    If the point is there is a lot of crap out there, okay. I agree. That’s not really news, though. Sturgeon’s Observation: 90% of everything is crap. That’s just life. By definition, only a few things can be awesome. Thus, everything else isn’t. Economics dictate that a ton of material be published to meet demand. And the publishers aren’t going to sacrifice a buck to ensure only the best of the best makes it to market.

    Seems obvious, nes pas?

    “Why are we always playing the same ones?”

    Who is this “we” of whom you speak? Is it you? Because it’s not me. I’ve not played a module in decades. Because they are mostly crap. I occasionally toy with running The Keep, but I end up not actually running it. This is because I realize only consider it out of nostalgia, not because I think it’s any good.

    Does anyone else actually fall back on them? I do not know. I do not believe the people I game with do. But other people could. I just wouldn’t know.

    Do you actually know? I suspect not.

    “...we saw how gygax used the physical layout to generate tension in the keep with player desire, a deliberate tactic used to create the tension that emergent play develops from.”

    First of all, I’ll be honest, I don’t even know what this means. I know what all those words mean, but the way you have organized them is thoroughly confusing. I re-read the “part II” post twice and did not find anything resembling that sentence. It sounds like high praise for Gary though.

    Secondly, I really think you’re giving gygax waaaay too much credit here. Anything smart or clever he seems to have done is more likely attributable to blind luck than deliberate intent. Gary was not an overly smart man. Some things he did worked okay. Most of it though, no so much.

    “I’m not saying it’s perfect”

    You’re not, but It feels like you’re ignoring all the warts and blemishes of gygax’s material while emphasizing the flaws of later material in order to push a particular thesis. Your thesis might be correct, but I cannot tell because your arguments and evidence are not sound. You’ve fallen into a couple of cognitive biases here, like confirmation bias. There are more rational ways to go about it.

    1. 12,000 is the amount of adventures available on Drive thru RPG.

      People just supported a reprint for an available module, keep on the borderlands, which gets played again and again as a campaign starter modules.

      I regularly see D&D streams and people in my feed playing through A0-A4, there's articles about peoples experiences playing one shot modules, like White Plume Mountain, from a person that plays mainly gurps.

      1st edition modules are still played, and considering that there's 12,000 of them out there, Why is the 1978 module so successful?

      Because the other's aren't. Clearly.

    2. “...we saw how gygax used the physical layout to generate tension in the keep with player desire, a deliberate tactic used to create the tension that emergent play develops from.”

      First of all, I’ll be honest, I don’t even know what this means.

      I'm sorry I wasn't clear.

      The players walk right past a place full of stuff to steal on the way to the inn. They see all the valuables and defenses of the keep on the way in. To encourage thieves and player shenanigans.

  4. “Why is the 1978 module so successful?

    Because the other's aren't. Clearly.”

    Thanks for the reply.
    That could be. Or it’s possible there are other explanations.

    For example, you cannot tell whether a module is good until you play it. And you cannot play it until you buy it. So, how can anyone tell if those 12,000 modules - all allegedly horrible - are actually horrible unless they buy them? It could be that all the old timey modules are selling based on reputation alone. Or nostalgia.

    I’m not saying that’s absolutely so. Only that I don’t find your conclusion warranted based on the evidence. I’d say more data is needed to better understand.


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