Tag Archives: tournament module

How Running Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan Reversed My Opinion of It

Three years and a day ago, I asked if C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan was overrated. While I enjoyed the dungeon’s flavor, I felt the adventure owed its classic reputation more to nostalgia than to quality.

But when I passed that judgement, I had never run the adventure. Recently, the Shrine’s conversion in Tales from the Yawning Portal convinced me to run it. I half expected a slog through a flooded museum filled with gotcha traps. Playing the adventure proved me wrong.

In this post, I revisit my old review and explain what playing the Shrine revealed.

The adventure C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1980) ranked 18 on Dungeon magazine’s list of the “30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time.” Compiled “with help from an all-star panel of judges including Ed Greenwood, Christopher Perkins, Bruce Cordell, and Monte Cook,” the list appeared in Dungeon 116, published November 2004. In the years to follow,
Wizards of the Coast released versions of the shine for 4th and 5th editions—more evidence that the adventure ranked as a classic.

Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

As you may know from my posts lauding tournament modules, I love modules stemming from competitions, especially those complete with scoring information—not that I ever keep score. The best tournament adventures focus on a series of challenges that demand player ingenuity. Both Escape from Astigar’s Lair and the Fez series feature an array of clever obstacles. Also, I love adventures with keyed illustrations for the players. The Hidden Shrine comes from the D&D tournament run at the Origins Game Fair in 1979, and includes point sheets and wonderfully evocative illustrations. Between the reputation and the scoring sheets, the Shrine seems like a certain classic in my book.

Except soon after the Shrine’s release, I started reading the adventure with an eye to running it, but lost interest, mired in the mud, slime, and rubble of the first level.

In the wake of the accolades, I figured that I my first look at the module must have stopped before I reached the good bits. Then I saw the shrine ranked #3 on Willmark’s list, “The Five Worst AD&D Modules of All Time and discovered that someone seemed to share my impression.

Inside the Hidden Shrine

Opinions of this adventure seem mixed. Players who probed the Shrine as a traditional dungeon crawl tended to brand the adventure as a slog. Folks who played with  red-shirted, pregenerated characters and a brisk pace enforced by the poison gas tended to enjoy the adventure. So for the best game, you play the Shrine as designed, as a race against time to escape a death trap.

Some reviewers of the Shrine paint the dungeon as an deathtrap. That fit its origin as a tournament adventure intended to grind up characters and reveal a winner. In competition, parties consisted of just 3 characters, so the dungeon must have proved unforgiving. But at my table, the adventure posed a fair challenge to a group of 5, fifth-level characters. Nobody died. One character will sleep for the next 5000 years unless the party pays to lift his curse.

I started the adventure with characters trapped at the lowest level, racing to escape the poisonous red fog. The device worked brilliantly. The players felt  urgency and peril, but they could afford short rests, so they never saw their resources exhausted. 

Does the The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan stand as a classic or an overrated dud?

Classic Overrated dud
Background. The Hidden Shrine draws from a caricature of Aztec and Mayan culture, just as traditional D&D draws from a caricature of the European middle ages. In a retrospective, James Maliszewski wrote, “The Mesoamerican flavor gives the whole thing an ambiance quite unlike other D&D modules. The whole thing has an ‘alien,’ exotic quality to it, which I think adds greatly to its appeal.” The background leads the adventure to pit the characters against monstrous snails, crayfish, and hermit crabs. While exotic, these creatures seem more suited to meeting Dora the Explorer than to menacing adventurers.
Dora jokes aside, the creatures seemed exotic rather than silly. At a table filled with longtime players and kids who read the Monster Manual for kicks, the unique creatures created a dash of wonder. The players enjoyed the challenge of deducing each monster’s abilities and temperament.

As a dungeon master, I wished that the text explained more of some creatures’ motives. The adventure seemed to default to the outdated assumption that everything in a dungeon attacks on sight.

Locations. The Shrine features some unforgettable locations and cunning predicaments. In a ranking of classic modules, Loren Rosson III cites locations such as, “The Chapel of the Feathered Servant (one player fights an imaginary foe while the others are forced by a winged serpent to solve a puzzle), the Hall of the Smoking Mirrors (look into them if you dare), and the Hidden Room of the Alter-Ego (a statue duplicates the looks of one of the players and comes to life while that player turns to stone).” I love the immense room spanned by a miniature city, and featuring a duel with a doppelganger behind a curtain of flame. Dungeon’s 30-greatest list marks this as the Shrine’s defining moment. Particularly on the first level, the good moments seem overwhelmed by locations where PCs clear rubble, slog through silt and slime, and spring hidden traps. Too few of the adventure’s challenges require much ingenuity to surmount, threatening to turn the shrine into a tiresome struggle of attrition.
I fretted that the Shine might turn into a tiresome slog, but play proved me wrong. The adventure’s text lavishes description on every room, including the mud and slime. Perhaps the chore of digesting all the verbiage fooled me into thinking that playing the adventure would also prove tiresome. 

Not every test of ingenuity requires a grand set-piece along the lines of a living chess room or frictionless hall. The Shrine mixes some grand tests with more mundane barriers. My players devised surprising and inventive solutions for obstacles big and small, and I loved watching their plans unfold.

Some reviewers joke that the secret to escaping the Shrine is don’t touch anything. Sure, if you don’t like treasure. Every corner of the Shrine includes includes items that inspire curiosity and lure characters into touching. The dungeon packs so many interesting features that my players’ exploration took more sessions than I expected. 

Illustrations. In “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations,” I wrote, “I first saw keyed illustrations in the Hidden Shrine and I became enchanted. The illustrations transported me into the Shrine more vividly than any text description could. The pictures showed detail that would have required all of those hypothetical 1000 words, and the details tantalized me with potential clues to the mysteries of the Shrine. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the Shrine, the designers loosed their imaginations, and it showed in the pictures.” The battle with the fire-breathing bat creature on the cover never takes place in the adventure.
The pictures still enrich the adventure. I wish the adventure had included illustrations for areas 42 and 45. I wish I had noticed that the original adventure included maps for areas 42 and 45. They would have helped me.
Authors Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason reached beyond Aztec and Mayan culture for inspiration. In Jeff Dee’s illustration of the miniature city, the dragon boat in the room’s center looks oddly Chinese. The idea for the room and the boat comes from the article, “China’s Incredible Find,” in the April 1978 issue of National Goegraphic. The article features a fold-out picture of the sepulcher of China’s first emperor. A dragon boat bearing the copper coffin floats in a river of mercury at the center of a miniature recreation of the empire. The description notes that “invaders would have had to pass booby traps of hair-trigger crossbows to reach this prize.”
Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan earns its place as classic. Run it as a race to escape and enjoy the Shrine’s wealth of flavor and detail. Savor the Shrine’s ingenuity and the ideas it draws from your players.

Basic and Advanced—Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions (Part 3)

By 1976, Dungeons & Dragons had reached beyond the audience of miniature gamers who stood a chance of understanding the inches, attack matrices, and Chainmail conventions spread across 7 little, brown books. Co-creator Gary Gygax saw his original rules limit D&D’s growth. He saw accessible imitators like Tunnels & Trolls and Warlock attract players.

But D&D’s sketchy rules caused other problems.

In Los Angeles in 1975, Lee Gold started Alarums & Excursions, a fanzine that collected articles and comments from D&D enthusiasts. Her zine attracted contributions by Gary Gygax and influenced the entire role-playing hobby. When the D&D house rules used around Caltech diverged from the brown books, Gold ruled that experience awarded in these Warlock games would no longer apply to characters in other Los Angeles D&D games. Her ruling appears in A&E issue 5, from October 1975.

In these days, players tended to take characters from one DM’s dungeon to another, much like today’s organized play brings players from one game table to another. The megadungeons of the era made dropping in for a delve easy—so long as the DMs ran similar games. But unlike today’s Adventurer’s League, the early games followed no campaign standards and shared no dungeons. Back then, every DM saw players bring outrageous characters from another dungeon.

In the March 1980 issue of Dragon, Gygax said that the original books “were hastily put together in late-night and spare-time hours, by and large, with little or no editing. Each supplement reflected development and evolution of the game, so there was contradiction, duplication, and vast areas of ambiguity and non-direction.”

Even if DMs played by the book, they disagreed about Gygax’s intentions. Old school gamers still dispute how Elves were supposed to switch between acting as a magic user and a fighting man. And to fill areas of “non-direction,” players needed house rules.

At best, house rules tended to get spread among players in a region, so nearby players might share rules for elves, morale, and negative hit points. These sorts of house rules turned into the Warlock rules and the Perrin Conventions.

D&D’s original rules invited so many house rules that players struggled to go from one DM to another. When players gathered at conventions, Gygax saw the trouble. “It’s very frustrating for someone to go from one place to another and sit in on a game that he or she doesn’t recognize and it’s called Dungeons and Dragons.”

At conventions, D&D games continued the wargaming tradition of competitive tournaments. The party that achieved the most won. For example, Tomb of Horrors debuted in a competition held at Origins in 1975. The G, D, and A-series adventures all came from tournaments. The first tournaments drew judges from Gary Gygax’s friends and family, but soon similar D&D competitions appeared everywhere.

Gygax understood that such events demanded a consistent set of rules. “I was not satisfied with Dungeons & Dragons in that it did not allow continuity of play from group to group and from region to region”

In the December 1977 issue of Dragon, Gygax recalled making a plan. “Two years ago, we determined to revise the whole of D&D in order to clean up the errors and fill in the holes. The project is a long and complicated one, a task not accomplished overnight.

“Some players have impatiently demanded immediate release of [revised] material, but we are not about to step into that mess again,” he wrote. “D&D originally came out as it did because of demands of those who had tested it and fallen in love with the concept.”

Gygax realized his revision would take years—ultimately 3 years of work. But D&D needed help immediately.

Help came from a man who had mixed D&D with the Warlock rules—a D&D “parody” that needled Gary Gygax. “As if by divine inspiration,” J. Eric Holmes contacted TSR and volunteered to revise the original rules into a beginners’ book.

Tim Kask recalls the decision to take D&D into two directions: “With the input from Mr. Holmes, they were going to scale back the system and rewrite it for a younger market in a form that would be easier to grasp.” With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, they would “re-publish the game, correcting all of the contradictions, and dropping bits and pieces that hadn’t worked well.”

Next: Recreating Dungeons & Dragons without Dave Arneson—while Dave works at TSR

Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain

In his notes to the dungeon master, author Gary Gygax promises that the Tomb of Horrors “is a thinking person’s module.” He warns, “If your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy.”

tomb-of-horrors-4e-coverTo back his claim, Gary starts the Dungeons & Dragons adventure with a 19-line poem that promises to lead through the dungeon to the tomb of Acererak, the demilich. In a bit of wishful thinking, players tend to hope that Acererak plays fair and that his clue will help them. They hope that Gary gives thoughtful players a sporting chance to evade all the death traps.

The promise of the adventure seems appealing, but do not feel tempted to play Tomb of Horrors. The adventure defies much of what we consider fun now.

Acererak’s poem tests the player’s puzzle solving ability less than promised. Gary’s son Luke Gygax calls the poem as much a trap as a clue. It tempts players deeper, but contains so many ambiguities that some lines remain unclear even to students of the dungeon’s text.

Rather than testing puzzle-solving skill, the tomb tests other skills: painstaking caution and a psychopathic disdain for hirelings’ lives. It works as resource management challenge, where the resources are henchmen and divination spells.

tomb-of-horrors-1e-coverGary did not design a tomb that let a clever group destroy the villain and survive intact. He devised the tomb so an ingenious group could win a battle of attrition and escape richer.

When Gary first introduced the tomb to his own group of players, they relied on masses of disposable hirelings to shield their player characters. “Rob Kuntz, in his game persona as a 13th-level (evil) lord [Robilar] went through the entire tomb in four hours actual time. He took 14 orcs and a couple of the low-level flunkies with him. He lost all the party, but his character personally looted the lich’s tomb and escaped with the goodies.

In those days, adventuring parties included many more characters than now. When Gary used the Tomb for a D&D tournament in 1975, each party of 15 played with the same characters, ranging from a level 12 magic user to a level 4 fighter.

tomb-of-horrors-2e-coverOne of the tournament’s players, Mark Swanson, wrote a first-hand account of the event for the September 1975 issue of the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Mark’s war of attrition began when two of his party’s fighters died before they even found the true entrance. Thanks for playing.

Divination spells represented another resource to manage. Many of the traps in the tomb seem capricious. The poem invites players to seek “night’s good color,” probably black. So how could players know that jumping into the black maw of the green devil face leads to annihilation, while stepping through nearby arch teleports them deeper into the dungeon? These challenges tested players ability to use spells wisely. For instance, after one henchman gets sucked into the maw of the green devil face, a wizard might cast Locate Object to determine if his employee’s red shirt remains near. Players in that 1975 tournament could gain help from spells like Find the Path, Locate Object, Divination, Find Traps, Clairvoyance, and Commune. By the time the adventure reached print, many more spells offered aid.

Even with unlimited spells and henchmen, the tomb demands a lot of painstaking investigation to see the end. Locating Acererak demands finding 15 hidden and concealed doors. Those secret passages make as much of a barrier to claiming the gold as the traps. Mid-way through, the tomb tries to fool players into thinking they reached the end. (Today, trying to trick players into dropping out of the story seems unthinkable.)

When Gary wrote Tomb of Horrors, nobody thought of D&D as a way to make stories. Players aimed to beat the dungeon and they kept score in gold. The tomb defies our newfangled expectations of story.

The adventure makes destroying the arch-villain Acererak nearly impossible. (See “Player skill without player frustration.”) When Ernie Gygax’s PC Tenser reached Acererak, he scooped all the treasure he could bag and he ran. That qualified as good play.

Mark Swanson lamented the effort his party wasted preparing spells for wandering monsters that never appear. Unlike most dungeon crawls, Tomb of Horrors lacks wandering monsters. Potentially, Players can use their unlimited time to counter the tomb’s traps with painstaking caution. This winning strategy accounts for the Tomb’s reputation for slowing to a punishing slog. While some players may enjoy excavating the Tomb like archaeologists, for most players, such caution amounts to pure tedium.

Gary never battled slow play. Players in his home group honored a social contract to keep the brisk pace that let Rob Kuntz finish in 4 hours. Later, players explored under the real-time pressure of a D&D tournament.

In Mark Swanson’s account, he draws a sharp contrast between the emerging play style evolving in the pages of Alarums & Excursions and the play style shown in the Gygax’s tournament. “Play a Gygax game if you like pits, secret doors, and Dungeon Roulette. Play a game such as in A&E if you prefer monsters, talking/arguing/fighting with chance-met characters, and a more exciting game.

tomb-of-horrors-book-coverEven though I consider Tomb of Horrors unplayable by today’s standards, I still love it. I am not alone. The tomb’s popularity led to official third- and fourth-edition updates, the boxed sequel Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and a hardcover sequel that shares the original’s name. The tomb appears in my DMDavid banner.

While I don’t want to play the tomb, I love the dungeon. I love the atmosphere. I love the inspiration it provided. Gary admits to “chuckling evilly” as he developed the tomb. His wicked fancy suffuses the dungeon. The best part of the adventure might be the keyed illustrations that revealed its locations.

The illustrations transported me into the tomb and tantalized me with potential clues to its the mysteries. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the tomb, Gary and his artists loosed their imaginations, and the place came to life. See “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations.”

Long before I ever read the adventure, I knew the tomb by its reputation and by those illustrations.

Tomb of Horrors features the best villain in Dungeons & Dragons. The villain isn’t Acererak’s jeweled skull. The villain is the tomb.

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

This villain issues a challenge that reaches the real world. Even in the late 70s, a legend for killing characters surrounded the tomb. Among my circle of players, no one dared risk a character to it.

The tomb greets intruders as the skull face on the hilltop, then appears in the guise of the great green devil face. The tomb flaunts a menace and cunning that matches any other villain in the game. When the tomb offers help, it taunts and teases. “Acererak congratulates you on your powers of observation. So make of this [poem] whatever you wish, for you will be mine in the end no matter what.” The poem is more trap than clue; this villain deceives. The soul-stealing skull is only the end of the players’ battle.

Gary called the game Dungeons & Dragons, and the game’s greatest villain is a dungeon.

Is The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan overrated?

Adventure C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1980) ranked 18 on Dungeon magazine’s list of the “30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time.” Compiled “with help from an all-star panel of judges including Ed Greenwood, Christopher Perkins, Bruce Cordell, and Monte Cook,” the list appeared in Dungeon 116, published November 2004. In 2011, Wizards of the Coast sent a promotional copy of the Shrine updated for fourth edition—more evidence that the adventure ranked as a classic.

Hidden Shrine of TamoachanAs you may know from my posts lauding tournament modules, I love modules stemming from competitions, especially those complete with scoring information—not that I ever keep score. The best tournament adventures focus on a series of challenges that demand player ingenuity. Both Escape from Astigar’s Lair and the Fez series feature an array of clever obstacles. Also, I love adventures with keyed illustrations for the players. The Hidden Shrine comes from the D&D tournament run at the Origins Game Fair in 1979, and includes point sheets and wonderfully evocative illustrations. Between the reputation and the scoring sheets, the Shrine seems like a certain classic in my book.

Except soon after the Shrine’s release, I started reading the adventure with an eye to running it, but lost interest, mired in the mud, slime, and rubble of the first level.

In the wake of the accolades, I figured that I my first look at the module must have stopped before I reached the good bits. Then I saw the shrine ranked #3 on Willmark’s list, “The Five Worst AD&D Modules of All Time and discovered that someone seemed to share my impression.

Inside the Hidden Shrine

Opinions of this adventure seem mixed. Players who probed the Shrine as a traditional dungeon crawl tended to brand the adventure as a slog. Folks who played with  red-shirted, pregenerated characters and a brisk pace enforced by the poison gas tended to enjoy the adventure. So for the best game, you play the Shrine as designed, as a race against time to escape a death trap.

I had to read the adventure to the end. Does the The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan stand as a classic or an overrated dud?

Classic Overrated dud
Background. The Hidden Shrine draws from a caricature of Aztec and Mayan culture, just as traditional D&D draws from a caricature of the European middle ages. In a retrospective, James Maliszewski wrote, “The Mesoamerican flavor gives the whole thing an ambiance quite unlike other D&D modules. The whole thing has an ‘alien,’ exotic quality to it, which I think adds greatly to its appeal.” The background leads the adventure to pit the characters against monstrous snails, crayfish, and hermit crabs. While exotic, these creatures seem more suited to meeting Dora the Explorer than to menacing adventurers.
Locations. The Shrine features some unforgettable locations and cunning predicaments. In a ranking of classic modules, Loren Rosson III cites locations such as, “The Chapel of the Feathered Servant (one player fights an imaginary foe while the others are forced by a winged serpent to solve a puzzle), the Hall of the Smoking Mirrors (look into them if you dare), and the Hidden Room of the Alter-Ego (a statue duplicates the looks of one of the players and comes to life while that player turns to stone).” I love the immense room spanned by a miniature city, and featuring a duel with a doppelganger behind a curtain of flame. Dungeon’s 30-greatest list marks this as the Shrine’s defining moment. Particularly on the first level, the good moments seem overwhelmed by locations where PCs clear rubble, slog through silt and slime, and spring hidden traps. Too few of the adventure’s challenges require much ingenuity to surmount, threatening to turn the shrine into a tiresome struggle of attrition.
Illustrations. In “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations,” I wrote, “I first saw keyed illustrations in the Hidden Shrine and I became enchanted. The illustrations transported me into the Shrine more vividly than any text description could. The pictures showed detail that would have required all of those hypothetical 1000 words, and the details tantalized me with potential clues to the mysteries of the Shrine. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the Shrine, the designers loosed their imaginations, and it showed in the pictures.” The battle with the fire-breathing bat creature on the cover never takes place in the adventure.
Authors Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason reached beyond Aztec and Mayan culture for inspiration. In Jeff Dee’s illustration of the miniature city, the dragon boat in the room’s center looks oddly Chinese. The idea for the room and the boat comes from the article, “China’s Incredible Find,” in the April 1978 issue of National Goegraphic. The article features a fold-out picture of the sepulcher of China’s first emperor. A dragon boat bearing the copper coffin floats in a river of mercury at the center of a miniature recreation of the empire. The description notes that “invaders would have had to pass booby traps of hair-trigger crossbows to reach this prize.”
Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan may just rank as a classic, but like another classic, The Tomb of Horrors, players must tackle the Shrine with a time limit and a party of red shirts. Otherwise, the adventure can serve as inspiration. I have ideas for my own dungeon room featuring a miniature city.

Little-known D&D classics: Fez

In 1980, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Open tournament played much like D&D games at home. The scenarios included dungeon exploration and fights with a dash of problem solving. Success came from quick play and cooperation. The Against the Slave Lords adventures show the sort of game players could expect.

In 1979, Len Bland and James Robert tried to enter the AD&D Open at Gen Con, but were turned away, so they decided to create their own tournament for next year’s convention. In 1980, they introduced Fez, a tournament like the AD&D Open, only better. In 1981, my buddies and I, at our first Gen Con, stumbled into the Fez tournament and had a blast, more fun than we had in that year’s AD&D Open. For several years, even as our interests wandered from AD&D to other role-playing games, Fez remained the Gen Con event we most eagerly anticipated.

Plus, Fez featured a play style different from the typical D&D game, and it blew my impressionable mind.

FezI The Wizard’s Vale was originally printed as Fez I Valley of Trees

Fez I The Wizard’s Vale was originally printed as Fez I Valley of Trees

Fez I: Wizard’s Vale sets a pattern the tournament would follow for years to come. Players begin the game unfamiliar with their characters’ abilities. The players start with a brief description of their character and hints of what the character can do, but with no game stats, and with no knowledge of their goals. In Fez I, the characters begin the game waking with amnesia.

This setup points to what made Fez so brilliant. The character sheet lacked the pat solutions of skills and magic and THAC0. To succeed, players could only rely on their wits as and whatever solutions they could uncover in the game world.

In this blog, I’ve shown how a reliance of skill checks tends to encourage players to focus on their character stats and to lose interest in the game world. When a skill check solves any problem in the game world, the details of the problem become unimportant.

When I played Fez, little seemed to demand a roll. Behind the dungeon master’s screen, Fez was a D&D game complete with THAC0 and HP (or HTK as the module writes, perhaps as part of an agreement between Mayfair Games and TSR). From my player’s perspective, Fez factored rules out of the game, making immersion the game world all important. Normally, I would not want to play battles without character stats, but in Fez, the objective seemed to be to avoid fights.

In Fez, the characters always started without knowledge of their ultimate objectives. This convention started the players and their characters on the same footing. It enabled Bland and Robert to start the players with a puzzle—the task of learning their goal.

Fez II The Contract

Fez II The Contract

Each tournament offered more puzzles and mysteries beyond the first. In Fez II: The Contract, players must settle Fez’s bet with a demon by accomplishing seven impossible tasks. Every task offers a puzzle with a variety of solutions. For example, players can circle the world in a single day either by repairing a crashed spaceship and circling the world, or by going to a library, finding a map, and drawing a circle around the world.

In Fez II, characters are plucked from the modern day, and one is an engineer, so repairing the space ship is less impossible than it seems. Every Fez challenges players with novel characters. In the first Fez, one player gets a Lammasu character. In Fez III: Angry Wizard, everyone plays a polymorphed monster. In Fez V: Wizard’s Betrayal, someone plays this:

The Orbion from Fez V

The Orbion from Fez V

Much of the Fez’s charm comes from a gleeful mix of magic and technology. The game’s namesake, the wizard Fez, travels though time and frequently visits the modern day. The scenarios mix faerie and monsters, aliens and robots, with as much joy as a kid mixing action figures and toys for make believe. Despite the light tone, the first adventures still feel like D&D and avoid turning goofy.

Fez V Wizard’s Betrayal

Fez V Wizard’s Betrayal

After Fez V, Bland stopped writing the series, and the tone becomes sillier. For example, Fez VI: Wizard’s Dilemma includes a gag where the players overcome orcs by getting them to argue over whether a beer tastes great or is less filling. Years later, when I resampled Fez’s descendent, the NASCRAG tournament, it seemed to have lost any flavor of a D&D world to gags and pages from a puzzle book tacked to the dungeon wall.  For my taste, it lacked the old magic.

But before Len Bland passed the torch, he and James Robert finished with Fez V: Wizard’s Betrayal, an adventure that would blow my mind again. Fez V inspired me to do a Gen Con tournament of my own. More on that in a future post.

During the 80s, Mayfair Games published the Fez adventures as a series of modules. You can still find used copies at affordable prices.

Little-known D&D classics: Escape from Astigar’s Lair

In 1980, Judges Guild published Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a slim module that sold for just $2. The adventure so charmed me that after I ran it, I created a similar challenge of my own to unleash on players.

Escape From Astigar's LairAstigar’s Lair originally served as a tournament module at Michicon ’80.  Instead of accommodating a table full of players for several hours, two players tackle the lair in just sixty minutes. In this era of 2-hour combat encounters, imagine finishing a fun, fast-paced, 22-room dungeon in under an hour!

As with many competition modules from the era, the module includes a scoring system. Players gain points for surmounting challenges while losing points for blunders. Unlike other similar modules, Astigar’s Lair sometimes awards points for decisions based on the characters’ personality quirks.

The action starts when the wizard Egad dons a cursed helm and becomes possessed by the evil spirit of the mighty Astigar. Players take the roles of the druid Danier and the ranger Therain, who begin shackled to a wall in Astigar’s dungeon complex. The escape encourages shrewd problem solving. How can you cross a chamber swarming with flying lizards as voracious as piranha? How can you force Egad to remove the cursed helm? The obstacles in the lair inspired challenges that I would add to my own game.

By necessity, the module’s authors anticipate certain solutions for the dungeon’s obstacles. For instance, the characters have only one way to escape from the shackles in that first scene. However, the judge’s introduction writes, “Points are awarded for creativity (one player in play testing threw paint at the rhinoceros beetle, blinding the beetle and allowing it to be more easily defeated).” Sure enough, the scoring now awards 10 points for throwing paint in the beetle’s eyes. I like this approach, because as a Dungeon Master, the real joy of confounding players comes not from when players repeat the solution I anticipate, but from when they surprise me with something new. (See “Player skill without player frustration,” for more.)

As a young player, I remember reading the druid’s class description in Eldritch Wizardry, and wondering why anyone would choose a character who changed into weak, mundane animals, and who cast spells like Warp Wood that seemed nearly useless. In Astigar’s Lair, the druid Danier only knows quirky spells like Heat Metal and Shillelagh, but the adventure invites clever solutions using all those spells.

I loved how Escape from Astigar’s Lair showed that combining oddball powers with some imagination could prove more fun than blasting away.

Picturing the dungeon – boxed text

As a dungeon master, I work to avoid confusion at the table, but from time to time, players misunderstand something in the game world.  “If I had realized the standing stones were only 18 inches high, I wouldn’t have tried to climb them.” Sometimes distracted players are to blame, but most of the burden falls on the dungeon master’s ability to describe.

In Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map and Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons, I wrote about how maps and minis help everyone understand what is happening in the game. In this post and the next, I want to discuss two more things that help everyone at the table understand.

Boxed text

In 1979, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan introduced boxed text descriptions for the DM to read when the players entered a location.  The Hidden Shrine originated as the adventure used for the “Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons tournament at Origins in ’79.” The boxed text provided a way to offer a consistent play experience in a competitive environment.

I know first hand about the importance of consistent descriptions in a competitive D&D environment. As I’ve suggested before, I like playing in the D&D Championship tournament at GEN CON. In 2012, the final challenge required you to close six arcane gates while demons poured out. As the challenge began, the DM dutifully read the boxed text, which included a description of mysterious runes on the pillars in the room. Like any good boxed text description, the text mentioned the runes alongside other, less important details. No one on my team appreciated the runes significance, so we failed to discover that disabling the runes reduced the extremely difficult arcana checks required to close the gates. Later, as we waited for the event results, we all wondered how we managed to overlook the runes. We could not blame the DM’s wording, because every team heard the same boxed text.  (Despite the oversight, my team performed well enough to place second. Still, if only…)

The boxed text innovation lives on, but not for its original purpose of leveling a competition. The introduction to the Hidden Shrine advises DMs to “read the module thoroughly several times before play starts.” Now boxed text exists to spare DMs from having to read a module several times. When you have to run a published adventure without a lot of preparation, boxed text avoids the stumbling descriptions that come when you must comb through the text for relevant details.

Boxed text does have a drawback. When most speakers read something aloud, their voice takes a different tone and cadence than when they speak extemporaneously, and that monotony can cause players’ attention to wander. Perhaps too many boxed text descriptions have lingered on descriptions of the color of the sunset and other bits of obviously unimportant fluff. For this reason, when I know the content well enough, I paraphrase boxed text. Still, even for DMs who never read boxed text, it helps. No one has shown a better way to summarize what the players must learn when they enter a room.

Do you think DMs should read or paraphrase boxed text?

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