Friday, November 20, 2009

A True Expert: Dave Cook Kicking Ass (Part 2)

[sorry, my earlier post was about to explode into an unwieldy amount of text...figured I'd break it up]

Let me just quote a paragraph from the text or two, so you can see why I just saw more and more awesomeness in the X4 and X5 modules:

In encounter 2 of Part 4 (X4:The Master of the Desert Nomads), the adventurers are relaxing with some caravan buddies, elated from an earlier victory over an attack by bandits (by the way, Cook makes good use of all the human "monsters" of B/X...bandits, Normal Men, nomads, dervishes, etc....not just character classes).

If the party remains, they will be the guests of honor at the night's feast. After a thick, syrupy coffee, the merchants will carry in a large platter of camel meat (still on the bone) laid on a bed of rice. Over this will be ladled burning hot grease and melted camel butter until it flows over the side of the tray. Lamshar will then invite the characters to eat. They will be expected to dip their fingers into the tray and pull out balls of meat and rice, dripping with grease. Lamshar and Khel will dine with them, offering the player characters choice bits of camel meat that they have pulled out. After the characters have had their fill (and to only eat a little would be insulting), the other merchants will take their place at the tray. The meal will finish with somewhat green dates.


Now all that text is DM's Eyes Only stuff...this is not boxed text to be read to the players (though both X4 and X5 include some boxed text). Cook creates a whole culture and adventure EXPERIENCE in under 30 pages of text.

Some might think, that with this kind of loving attention to the background material, the adventure would be short on action. No way. He still has room for a full set of wilderness encounters and a 60+ encounter dungeon (the Evil Abbey), as well as including half a dozen new monsters, pregenerated characters, and mini-mass combat rules. And that's JUST X4! X5 is another great 30 pages...this is practically a mini-campaign setting between these two modules.

X4 was published in 1983, the same year Mentzer's Basic set was coming out. X5: Temple of Death was also released in 1983. This is before Mentzer's Expert set or Companion rules hit...

X4 has no shortage of interesting tricks and traps (here come some spoilers folks). For example, back to the previously quoted encounter: all PCs taking part in the feast have to make a save versus poison ("I don't know if it was a piece of under-cooked camel or the green dates, but I'm not feeling so hot..."). Those that FAIL are up all night with indigestion. However, those that are AWAKE get a shot at stopping a sneaky little critter that ransacks the camp that night.

How cool is that? The characters that SUCCEED get to brag about their iron constitutions, but the ones who FAIL get a shot at being heroes later on!

There are a several of these kinds of ancient Champion of Law that is so obviously the inspiration behind the Scorpion King of The Mummy Returns film (yep, it's now gone bad...)...others friendly NPCs that aren't what they seem (similar to The Jade Empire video game)...plants and double-agents. And am I the only one that sees the Nagpa monsters the direct antecedent of Games Workshop's Lord of Change greater daemon?

Cook also corrects one of the issues I have with X1: The Isle of Dread, though it sets a bit of a bad precedent to later adventure modules. In X1, adventurers can wander around a huge island wilderness for days or weeks without encountering anything but wandering monsters due to encounters being in certain set locations. Players (and the DM) basically have to get lucky (or fudge) if they want the party to run into a particular set piect. In X4 and X5, the wilderness map is set, but the location of the encounters are not...players will experience each encounter when the DM deems the time is right.

Now when I say this is a dangerous precedent I say it comes dangerously close to a linear railroad type adventure...where the only thing that can happen is "players succeed at encounter and move onto next" OR "players fail at encounter and die ending adventure." Adventure path or "story path" in the end all you're doing is living the author's fiction...with widely varying degrees of control (depending on the level of authored NPC involvement). When this happens, it doesn't matter how cool and interesting an adventure...your game play is no longer a collaboration between creative minds, and that's a shame.

Cook avoids this pitfall, and he does so through a number of ways:

1) With a couple exceptions, wilderness encounters need not occur in a particular order. The DM is just ensuring they occur...that's part of the adventure (just like dealing with the throne room or the demi-lich is part of the Tomb of Horrors...there are specific bottle-neck points).

2) Success or failure at a particular encounter does not necessarily derail the adventure. For example, in X5: Temple of Death players don't HAVE to get into the flying ship (flying ship? Yeah, as I said, both these modules are frigging awesome). And in fact, even though it would expedite some things, doing so leads to its own dangers (I shan't elaborate for the benefit of folks that haven't played).

3) In both modules there is a centerpiece dungeon that players will eventually find, and unlike, say other modules, there is nothing linear or pre-scripted in what happens once "on-site." Hell, the dungeons don't even include the boxed text that is present in the wilderness encounters! They are wholely Old School dungeons, complete with Gygaxian ecology and wide open for exploitation by creative adventuring parties.

4) There is no force used upon the PCs through the machinations of NPCs. Players are still calling the shots about what happens in the adventure.

For all these reasons, I don't feel the modules are forced or contrived. Heck, they're even less so than the Desert of Desolation series, with which they share certain superficial traits. Despite the lower production value, Dave Cook's two-part series may actually blow the Hickman and Weiss masterpiece out of the water.'s hard to say, though, as I've had such a love of the I3-5 series for so long.

As far as a B/X adventure? It is easily the best pre-packaged adventure I have ever read for B/X or BECMI. Hands is head-and-shoulders above both B2: Keep on the Borderlands and X1: Isle of Dread. And seeing as how THOSE two made my Top Ten All Time list...well, I might just have to re-do the list.

The thing is, Cook's modules are not designed for kids. Or maybe they are, but they have a very mature, adult sensibility. The power of organized religions? Demons and possession? The need to use wits and stealth over hack/slash/fireball tactics? This ain't no pick-up game for ten year olds, no matter what the Expert set box says.

Of course, we ARE talking Dave Cook here. The designer behind I1:Dwellers of the Forbidden City and A1:Secret of the Slavers Stockade. Snake people and slavers? The guy has a Swords & Sorcery mentality that doesn't quit.

And he brings that S&S style to both X4 and X5. THESE are the potential of the D&D Expert Set...THIS is the kind of mentality I am trying to bring to my Companion set. If Cook had written the sequel to B/X instead of Frank Mentzer, I might have never moved over to AD&D. And, heck, I HAVE made B/X my game/drug of choice after all these years...

Dave Cook is my F'ing hero. Like Gygax and Arneson he should be up on the pedestal of RPG Masters. And, yes, I do realize the total irony with which I write that given his spearheading the design of 2nd edition AD&D leading to the saturation of TSR with sub-mediocre material...but you know, anyone who could take the original mishmash of AD&D and re-organize it has got to be appreciated for design chops regardless of how one views the end result...and I DO appreciate it, even as I loathe the game itself.

Mr. Cook, even as I try to dissuade folks from playing 2nd edition, I will heap praises on your name for your Expert work. And X4 and X5 are shining examples of why B/X is indeed the best version of the game to play. Bravo, sir.

Um...but one, little, tiny issue, Mr. Cook sir. Encounter #2 in the Catacombs? In X4 on page 28? There's no such thing as a "permanent Magic Mouth spell" in B/X D&D...there's no Magic Mouth spell at all.

But one flaw in two modules (for a guy publising in two editions at the same time), is pretty flawless in MY book.
: )


  1. Terrific comments -- I'd like to see your revised Top 10 modules list. . .

  2. @ Carter: Yeah, I think it's coming down the pike. After picking up a slew of modules recently (including the entire A1-A4 series in their non-Supermodule form) I've got a LOT of reading to do, but I suspect certain adventures are going to be shifting rank.
    : )

  3. As I said in my comment on 'part 1', I agree that X4 and X5 are great modules.

    Regarding: "As far as a B/X adventure? It is easily the best pre-packaged adventure I have ever read for B/X or BECMI."

    Have you had an opportunity to look at B10, "Night's Dark Terror"? I would rank B10 above X4 and X5.

    I dream of someday running a campaign that would include B2, B10, X1, X4, X5, X8, and X10.

  4. Agreed on all* counts. X4-X5 are superb.

    I've always loved them, ever since I picked them up back in 1983, right off the shelf at Kay-Bee. So evocative, so distinctive. Such an immersive world he creates. I love the atmosphere of the valley with the wary gnomes--then a dead mammoth drops out of the sky...or the dragon at the entrance to the pass?

    I'm raring to introduce them to my new gaming group--have to do X1 first... :-)

    *Except as regards the geonids. Love those guys.

  5. @ Akrasia: I'll keep a lookout. It's very rare I come across B or X modules and I'm always interested when I see 'em.

  6. I took a look at X5 again after reading this. Just going through the first part where the PCs are moving through the Great Pass, one of the encounters looks particularly dangerous.

    Specifically, the chamber with the living light. It seems here that if the PCs do not have the right spell prepared and think to use it properly, the party is dead.

    To anyone who has run this encounter, how did the PCs survive?

    There is some great stuff in here though. I particularly love the interaction of the Cyclops and the Well of the Moon. It is very interesting to read how at the right time this location creates a ladder to the moon. Now that is an interesting image!

  7. OK, JB, I'm a fan of yours, but I couldn't agree less with your assessment of these two in general and the following in particular:

    Cook avoids this pitfall, and he does so through a number of ways...

    These modules are almost unalloyed railroading, or, more specifically, illusionism. The Notes for the DM reads:

    "The DM controls the timing of all the encounters. He does not have to worry about the characters missing an important encounter by not going in the right direction." [italics mine]

    You might as well say, "he doesn't have to worry about the players messing up his story."
    A rant and spoilers follow for those with the endurance for such things:

    X4 starts with the players being told they joined an army and marched to a village. They then must encounter the cleric with the map. If he lives, he Quests a PC into accepting the mission, but then collapses and can't do anything else. If he dies, he tosses the map to a PC and casts Quest before he dies. The Army tells them to follow the map and hire the only other guy in the village as their guide. Here the PC's actually have a choice: they can be idiots, ignore the Army, and strike out into an unknown desert on their own, OR they can follow the flashing hint sign and hire the river-boat guide.

    Later, they encounter the caravan you mention. Again, unless they are suicidal or stupid, they join the nice people (note that they can't miss the caravan; they automatically encounter it). The caravan stops at an oasis and every trick in the book is pulled out to make them stay: the master will tell them it's insulting if they leave, the guides will refuse to come, and the swordsman will get suspicious.

    Why does the scenario force them to stay? So that they can have the encounter with the Master in the Buried Temple. They can't do anything else there: Abatu will escape down the chasm that the PC's can't go down. They may or may not revive The Rock, but if they do, he doesn't tell them anything and the Temple coincidentally collapses.

    They then encounter the dervishes so that they can be given three cryptic clues. Then they must encounter the three things referenced in the clues.

    X5 is just as bad, but I've lost steam. The only thing these scenarios have going for them are the over-arching plot (although I liked it better when Robert Howard wrote it and called it "Black Colossus") and some decent set-pieces. The Evil Abbey has potential (although I liked it better when Clark Smith wrote it and called it "The Black Abbott of Puthuum"). The Living Light is coolish (although I liked it better when Lovecraft wrote it and called it "The Colour Out of Space").

    I'm really surprised at the love these modules get. If I was a player, I would have gotten up and left as soon as that stupid Quest spell came out.

  8. @ Matt: Thanks for being a fan!

    As for the disagreement...I have to admit I've never actually played X4 and X5 having only recently acquired them. However, while I see your points, they feel less rail-roady to me than other module/adventures I've seen.

    For example, all "Notes to the DM" aside, nothing forces the characters to take up with the army or join the caravan. Certainly, higher level PCs and strong-willed and/or creative players may choose their own road/way of getting to Sind. Things will be harder for them (as the module points out) but it's not necessarily suicide. Yes, there are "flashing hint signs," but the DM can choose to NOT be heavy-handed. I've seen other adventures where there is no choice given as to where to go and what to do.

    And any cleric of 7th level or higher has access to the Remove Quest spell.

    As for X5, except for the linear dungeon leading through the pass, there's no specific direction the PCs have to take upon entry into the Master's fortress. Certainly the fashion in which they deal with THAT little playground is open-ended.

    To me, I find the modules very interesting, but I'll have to give 'em a playtest some day to get a REAL feel for 'em. AND I will strive not to use to much force with the PCs!