It was only a few weeks ago (when was Free RPG Day? A couple days after that) that I was in Around the Table Games in Edmonds and found a veritable motherlode of used D&D game product for sale, including a stack of adventure modules in near mint condition. And they were a wide variety: everything from Castle Caldwell to Queen of the Demonweb Pits to a first printing of Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan to the deluxe World of Greyhawk (not in the box). It was a really astounding collection, a mountain of books showing little evidence of actual play...just years of careful storage until the day some gentleman decided to clean out his closet.
[I asked about the person who'd sold the items...some local lawyer, apparently, and one "definitely older" than Yours Truly]
Needless to say, despite an eye-gouging markup, I acquired a fair portion of the collection, though I restrained myself somewhat (tempting as it was to double-up on copies of books I already own, I felt guilty at the thought of depriving others of the chance to acquire such treasures). Still...a good haul and (for me) more useful items than what I might have picked up at Free RPG Day, had I remembered to show up on time this year.
Mostly more useful, I should say. I'll admit that some items were more about nostalgia than anything else, and it's one of these books that I want to talk about: Carl Smith's 1984 adventure module The Forest Oracle. Designated N2 (the second of the "novice" series, after Against the Cult of the Reptile God), The Forest Oracle was one of the last 1E adventure modules I purchased prior to a hiatus from D&D that lasted more than a decade (my hiatus from "Advanced" D&D specifically has continued up through the present day...about 30 years).
[Jesus Christ! I hadn't even realized that till now!]
I ran The Forest Oracle at least once or twice "back in the day," but somewhere in the mists of time it was misplaced or stolen or tossed (not by my...I'm an absolute packrat when it comes to most things), hence the reason I was willing to shell out $15+ for a good copy. It is infamous in gaming circles, being considered one of the worst adventure modules of the TSR era...if not one of the worst of all time. Google its title and you can find several blog posts and and assorted forum rants describing the reasons why. It IS rather bad, on a lot of fronts, and I can specifically remember some issues when it came to actually running the thing, including an outright mutiny by my players over the "wererat robbery" incident.
[for the curious: players stay the night at an inn, where they are subsequently robbed by wererats. Even PCs setting a guard for the night gets put to sleep by a sleep spell (despite wererats not having access to such magic). It's a really heavy handed method of setting up a really stupid encounter for very nonsensical reasons. My players...who were not what one would call particularly sophisticated...railed at both the stupidity and unfairness of the situation, to the point that I believe we simply scratched it out of existence. If they'd actually read the adventure module, they would have seen the encounter was even stupider than it appeared]
Be that as it may, I adore this module. Despite the poor writing, the linear (often railroad) plot, the nonsensical challenges and pointless encounters...even when I was a kid (and didn't care or notice these kinds of things) and the only thing that mattered was the recommended level of PC (and levels 2-4 was far, far too low for my usual players), I still wanted to own and play the thing. Because stylistically I really dig on the promise their selling.
Just look at that cover. Keith Parkinson's color plates have been some of my favorite over the years, and this one is no exception. These aren't mischievous gremlins, subterranean wretches, nor Tolkien orcs of a lesser variety. No, these goblins are the dark fey of a Grimm Brother's forest, girded for war and sporting hell-colored skin that leaves no question of their evil nature or infernal origins.
And the threat implied by the cover goes perfectly with the themes and plot set out in the adventure scenario (a village cursed, a magical quest, benevolent druids, nefarious gypsies). Even the nonsensical encounters (the grieving nymph with her enchanted lover, the attack in the night by shapeshifting rats) go well with the "fairy tale" theme being presented, as does Jeff Easley's rather charming interior artwork. It's not "high fantasy" (what one might call Tolkien or Dragonlance); it's what I call prosaic fantasy, though of course I'm using the term "prosaic" incorrectly (sorry, I wasn't a lit or writing major). Prosaic actually means "common," "unromantic," or "lacking poetic beauty" and sure The Forest Oracle fits that description. But what I really mean is something delightfully quaint or of an older style, whimsical nature. Give me the word that means that in English and I'll endeavor to improve on my poor vocabulary.
See, there's been a lot of ink (and blood) spilled over the last few years on the nature of the style of "Old School" D&D, discussions I've contributed to myself in enthusiastic and half-cocked manner. And while there's no denying both the gonzo design priorities and S&S inspirations, there is a LOT of this "fairy tale" style fantasy on display in D&D. Hell, it was what I brought to D&D when I first started playing.
I didn't get around to reading Moorcock and Leiber and Zelazny until I was well into my high school years. But I read a LOT of fantasy fiction even before I began immersing myself in fantasy role-playing: C.S. Lewis (of course), Frank Baum, Lewis Carol, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Robin McKinley, and Peter S. Beagle. Tolkien, too, though only The Hobbit (I wouldn't finish LOTR till college). The Brothers Grimm. Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales. Bullfinch's Mythology. Etc.
[true, I was also reading MZB, Asprin's Thieves World anthologies, and McCaffery's Get Off the Unicorn...we'll get to those in the next installment of this series]
Point is, my fantasy inspirations...the stuff of my imagination that was driving me towards D&D...was cut neither from the Howardian/Lovecraftian pulp cloth, nor from its imitators. Likewise, I had yet to be exposed to "high concept fantasy" in the Tolkien LOTR, Sam Donaldson, Terry Brooks, etc. sense...where a band of heroes struggle against some supernatural, mega-evil threat with the fate of a completely fictitious fantasy world hanging in the balance (i.e. the most popular form of serial fantasy fiction for the last several decades...see Robert Jordan, George Martin, Dragonlance, even Rowling's Harry Potter series).
And I don't think Dungeons & Dragons did all that much to dissuade me from that style of fantasy. If illustration and artwork is present to conjure and fire the imagination, many of the most prominent images found in my early D&D books fit right along side my prosaic (commonplace), fairy tale fantasy sensibilities. Outside the original Moldvay Basic book itself, I find a surprising lack of dungeon illustrations. There are few images in the original Monster Manual that depict or even suggest a subterranean setting, save for the Gygaxian "underworld cleaning crew" monsters, and aside from the joke illos (and the serial comic in the appendix on random dungeon creation) the DMG is likewise devoid of such artwork.
[while it's hard to argue against the cover of the original Players Handbook, keep in mind this was the last piece of the AD&D "puzzle" we acquired, instead operating with a combo of B/X, the MM, and the DMG, for a couple years...and when we DID finally get ahold of the PHB it was with the 1983 Easley ("Ringlerun") cover. I didn't see the 1978 cover till I acquired a copy in a used bookstore, circa 1987]
Check out the DMG illustrations on pages 48, 59, 154, and 193. Heck, just look at the cover leaf illos from all the original core books (DMG, PHB, MM): all show outdoor scenes...scenes I'd say deserve to be called pastoral (yes, even the bulette fight) in the light of day. Nothing so mean as grubby explorers in a fantasy Underworld. No one hanging from ropes or prodding cave walls with 10' poles or fighting desperate battles with brutish orcs by the light of torches and lanterns.
And yet those things...those scurrilous rogues who go (largely) undepicted...those are the stuff of actual gameplay, as written. It's HARD to use the D&D system to run games in the style of old fairy tale fantasy...the genre simply isn't supported by the system (let me tell you, I've tried!). A fairy tale druid grove like that described in The Forest Oracle isn't likely to be held in respectful awe...it's simply another lair waiting to be scouted and plundered by an enterprising party of adventurers (as soon as they feel they're of a level sufficient to take it on)! Roadside encounters with sad nymphs and dryads-in-distress are as likely to end in disaster as not, depending on what angle to the players see in helping such creatures. It IS possible to inject the fear and wonder of the mysterious and supernatural into one's game, but it seldom lasts...in the end, what matters most is how readily an encountered creature can hit Armor Class 2 (that's AC 18 for you ascending types).
Anyway, some of us were trying to do this type of fantasy. You see it in other modules of the TSR era (the UK series especially), but none quite so clearly as The Forest Oracle. It may seem like banal, overused fantasy tropes (I mean, it is, right?) but that in itself feels unusual to me. Which is probably why I like it.
|R.I.P. Keith Parkinson