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Treasures from the Vault

An opinionated review/commentary by Ian Trump, Copyright© 2000

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion



I find that there is almost as much animosity against Wizards of the Coast in the gaming industry as there is against Microsoft in the computer industry. Like them or not, WotC has pushed the bar up higher when it comes to supporting their hard-core customers, especially DMís. I have run a campaign in the Forgotten Realms using Rolemaster-based rules for some time now. It was a great delight for me to see an updated, downloadable PDF file of my entire campaign area, "The North", released at the WotC web site at: a month or so ago! (Besides almost two dozen Forgotten Realms titles, they throw in some Al-Qadim, Dark Sun, The Birthright campaign setting modules, as well as a whole host of other generic D&D modules, to name but a few.)

This was just what I needed to get organized, as my campaign in the North and Sword Coast was spread over six or more module-sized editions, as well as several binders of information. After enjoying an hour while some 180 pages- including several maps printed out, I was able to re-organize the entire works into a couple of binders; and insert my notes, NPC conversions, and encounter tables in between the appropriate pages. The indexes are extensive and found in the front and the back of the book. This is a huge time saver when sent on a "quest for the obscure" by a campaign development.

Supplementing this release was a more recent posting of "Arcane Age: Netheril - Empire of Magic", the "Ancient History" of my campaign world, along with some specific adventure locals. I was totally impressed again as it will keep my PCís happy for many months of gaming, with little to no major work on my part.

It was a trip down memory lane for me when, amongst the many offerings from the WotC web site, I discovered a posted copy of the classic D&D adventure: B3-"Palace of the Silver Princess" by Jean Wells. After reviewing the included player characters and reading the module, I was surprised that anyone would have ever played D&D! The suggested PCís are all between 1st to 3rd level, and the opposition includes some very difficult and dangerous traps, encounters with mostly typical D&D monsters, and huge amounts of significant magical support. Good thing it only took 5 minutes to generate a 1st level D&D character, back in the old days! For a "so-called" beginning level adventure, the treasure trove is huge: thousands of gold is available in this dungeon, as well as some powerful magic items. The magic items are enough to rival anything found in the D1-"Decent into the Depths of the Earth" module (unfortunately, not among those available for free download), which introduced the magically loaded, and infamous, Drow.

From a historical perspective, it was interesting to see the evolution of the D&D adventure module. "Palace" has some serious issues in terms of game balance, and the included artwork was at times both bad and highly controversial for the time, more so than the nudity in the Deities and Demi-gods. Nudity and sexuality was an issue that TSR and D&D had grappled with ever since the naked women on the sacrificial alter edition of Eldric Wizardry. The depiction of a bound woman being tortured in "Palace" caused the rise of more than a few eyebrows in the early 80ís and prompted TSR to order a product recall. Today, a first edition copy of B3 with the controversial art goes for significant amounts on E-bay.

Another controversial moment in TSR history was when they were charged with copyright infringement for including D&D stats for HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu and Michael Moorcock's Melnibonian gods, monsters, and characters in the first print run of Deities and Demi Gods. As a result they were forced to delete these pages from subsequent print runs. Thus, a copy of the first edition of D&D w/C&M runs for up to $ 85.00 US!

Obviously, production standards were much lower in the early 80ís as many rooms in "Palace" were not detailed at all and ample space was left for three headings: Description, Monster, and Trap. The reason behind the "ample" space within "Palace" was to encourage DM's to use their imagination in developing more insanely dangerous monsters and traps than are already found in the module. I am all for encouraging DM's use of imagination, but unless the DM decides to include a blind, wounded orc guarding a +5 Vorpal weapon, the module again becomes ridiculously over the capabilities of a first level "hoard" of PC's.

Adventuring life was so much simpler, back in the days of old. Another feature of the old style modules- besides unfortunate choices in artwork and lack of dungeon detailing- was the famous boxed text around the descriptive narrative for the player characters. It was a feature that became desirable for early DMís as it reduced preparation time, and greatly speeded up the flow of the adventure.

Ah yes, a word about preparation time...Today, most DMís- like myself put in many hours of work per session on their campaigns. I have fond memories of buying a module Friday after school, reading it on the bus ride to my friendís house and DMing it from Friday until Sunday, with a break Saturday morning to watch the D&D cartoon!

I believe that "Palace" was groundbreaking for its time. There are numerous "classic" D&D traps, and the adventure hooks have a gothic, although predictably cheesy ring to them. I think that this module forms part of the codex, or backdrop, that later work is judged against; back in the days of high adventure all this was new and interesting, and epic in scope. The gaming community was anxious for any new product, and the body of work was so small that there really was nothing to compare it to. We can say "cheesy" today because we have been exposed to a huge body of work in epic fantasy adventure. To prove my point: Today when you mention "Tomb of Horrors" in a circle of gamers, especially DMís, everyone will know that you are talking about: Arguably, (we are talking about gamers after all), the toughest, party grinding trap-fest dungeon ever written.

"Palace" overall has a darker tone to it than the first few TSR modules. It is especially darker than the "classic" (I use "classic" to indicate itís age, not itís quality) B2-"The Keep on the Border Lands". (Sadly, the much-maligned B2 has not been issued on the web but has been repackaged as an "Anniversary Edition" and is available in stores now.) The B2 Module suffers from an overwhelming opposition for 1st and even 5th level D&D characters. There are literally hundreds of monsters to be combated in the caves conveniently located near the "Keep", and the resounding question was that "If there are so many monsters, why have they not attacked the Keep and burned it to the ground?" The cynical response has been "Then where would the monsters get their food supply of first level characters from?"

Some of the descriptions in "Palace" show a great facility with descriptive English. It has every major stereotype one could want, including some of my personal favorites like "The Misty Swamp". Few campaign worlds I know of have, nice, happy swamps. I like the fact that there is a lot of handholding for a DM in this module; it extensively uses rumors to introduce the plot, and the DM is instructed "not simply to tell the PCís the rumors, but to role-play". What a concept!

Overall, WotC has unloaded a great deal of older titles, including complete campaign worlds, to the gaming community on their website. This has to have cranked up the pressure on the smaller companies tremendously as they will be financially unable to dump product to the community for free. Despite their financial troubles and blunders over the years I've adopted ICEís Rolemaster rules because I like the flexibility and "realism" of the system, and because there were so many bad things about the first couple editions of D&D. Case in Point: I enjoy the fact that a 1st level character in Rolemaster can (admittedly incredibly small possibility) kill a 10th level character in a single blow. In D&D without developing "house rules" this is impossible. WotC is going to be incredibly profitable with the third edition of D&D (It is bitter irony indeed that ICE has gone under while TSR's D&D continues to thriveÖ) as many of the system balance issues have been addressed. By dumping older titles they will encourage players to adopt their rules by providing a large body of free adventuring material. I'll say it again, free material which I will happily convert to Rolemaster for my campaign.

I am Trumpster

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