Look at me I thought I knew it all.
If you have poked around here on my site, you may already know I have been in gaming a long time. At some point in the 80’s, after playing a lot of D&D, I couldn’t swallow what TSR was producing anymore. So I played Chill and Mach and eventually went underground to do my own thing. Last year I decided to rejoin the RPG community by contributing online. Certainly very different than pinning a notecard on the bulliten board of the local game store. Having been under a rock for over a decade meant learning that OSR stood for Old School Renaissance, not Odor Stain Remover. So here we are.
There is a lot of really good crap out there. One thing in particular that has resonated with me is Courtney Campbell’s Quantum Ogre series, which addresses the concept of “Player Agency”. Stripped down “Playgency” means the Game Master presents situations which allow for the players to make meaningful choices. As a game designer this is the proverbial double edged swordinga: On the one hand the game experience gets cranked way up, on the other there is more work that must be done by the Crypt Lord to be prepared when players “Go Off the Edge of the Map”. It’s funny, I’ve always been an OTEofM guy, but I’m terrible at on the spot improvisation. It’s stressful, saying “...um...um..ah…” to 6 overexcited players staring at you. I have always designed my adventures with no particular solution in mind. Instead, I would make sure I understood the logic of the place, so I could roll with whatever the crypt openers would throw at me. This garners two main benefits: 1) The physical creation/description could be kept to a minimum and 2) It was wayway more fun not knowing how the players were going to crack it. In the long run it was always more cost effective to create my own adventures because it took me almost as long to assimilate the essence of a commercial one in order to run the game properly. I know, bla bla bla.
Anyway, I thought it would be a good exercise to strip down a well reviewed/classic D&D adventure and look it at it through the lens of Playgency. As it happens the very first commercial adventure I played as a player was Tomb of Horrors (bum-bum-bwaaaa)! I would have been (thinks for a moment) 15 at the time. I ran this character:
Galandriel raised a few eyebrows in our TTMKKK (Total Teen Male Kill Kill Kill) group at the time. My best friend was playing “Roc Hard”, so I don’t have to spell out why choosing the weakest class (Monk) and playing a female character was kinda out there. I had been playing D&D a couple of years, but only as Dungeon Master. If memory serves, I was asked to join the group as they were having a devil of a time dealing with the puzzles and traps. Through shear luck I had created a character optimised for the Tomb.
Anyone checking my character sheet will have noticed that Galandriel weilds a Scimitar, which is outside the official rules of the game. We never gave modding the system a thought back then, it just seemed obvious that you had to bring your own ideas into the game in order to make it function. I mean, have you ever read the section on psionics? To me sections like this in the DMG existed only to reinforce the idea that the game was basically broken and you had to fix it. In fact that was the whole point. Rules? Those are for guys in suits. But I digress.
My memory of playing through the Tomb is a good one. We loved the illustrations (which are totally badass) and eventually figured out how to laser the doors made out of precious metals into chunks so that we could turn them into cold hard xp. It is interesting now to read comments posted online about the module, many speak to it’s reputation as a “meatgrinder” and a lot of people I suspect who play it prepare themselves based on this foreknowledge. All we had was the front cover art and the words of our 15 year old Dungeon Master. The Demi-lich looks a little like Jerry Lewis on the front cover, I’m not sure what we thought we were up against based on this. It is important to note though, content was at a premium, so if you had something, you used it.
Tomb of Horrors an Analysis: part one is not unlike the start of the module itself, hacking along 340 feet of featureless cliff face looking for a way in. “Oh, look double doors….let’s go see what’s behind them…”
Join me next time when we put the "anal" in analysis by mapping the entire adventure as a decision node flow chart.
Are you ready for: Tomb of Horrors an Analysis Part Two: Classic or Unplayable Meat Grinder?
BTW, I recommend C. Campbells blog: Hack & Slash. See link on sidebar.