Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Nostalgia Bias

Recently, I read a retrospective review of adventure module I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City over at Reviews from R'lyeh. It was less than complimentary, stating in part:
I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is a module with a huge number of problems. In terms of its most basic design, it has a split personality between the tournament play elements (with advice how to run the entrance tunnels as a tournament, but not the means, since the module is not part of the part of the ‘C’ or Competition series of scenarios) and the sandbox aspect once the Player Characters are in the Forbidden City. The former is highly detailed where the latter is not, the former has the players pushed in one direction, whereas the latter does not. Now whilst at least one of the encounters in the tunnels makes sense, the actual city is underwritten, with little description as to its current state or background as to its origins or who its original inhabitants were, with only the bases for each of the factions receiving any real attention or detail. And of those factions, the Yuan-ti suffer from the same issue. The module also treats its NPCs badly, few of them being named...Further, even the one named NPC in the scenario who will readily come to the Player Characters’ aid, an Elf Magic-User who is the only survivor from a previous expedition, has an unpleasant manner which will only serve to at least annoy the Player Characters, if not completely drive them off...

Worse, I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City ignores the primary reason for the Player Characters to travel as far south as the Forbidden City—the treasure from the caravans. It is completely omitted from the scenario, leaving a motivation to be unfulfilled. And without that, once the chieftain’s son has been rescued, there remains little motivation for the Player Characters to stay in the city. Now, there are plenty of potential motivations and adventure ideas given at the end of the module, but these are not used in the module as written despite the fact that they are infinitely more interesting than the very basic ones of searching for treasure (which does not exist) and rescuing the chieftain’s son given at the beginning of the module. As a consequence of their not being written into the module, there are no sewer systems filled with jungle-ghouls, no lost temple of Ranet, no temple to tentacular thing from another plane, no spy network, no travel back to explore the city in its prime, and so on. 

The fact is, I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is begging for all of these—and more...
Long-time readers of this blog may remember me writing of Dwellers with glowing praise...I have said, more than once, that it's one of my favorite adventure modules of all time. On my list of most "inspirational" adventure modules (i.e. inspiring me to play D&D) I ranked it #2, just behind Queen of the Demonweb Pits. I likewise ranked it #2 on my personal Top Ten list of all time D&D adventure modules, just in front of Q1 and just behind White Plume Mountain (though I noted that I "preferred the flavor" of Dwellers to S2). I've run the adventure module probably four or five times AS WRITTEN...i.e. without any further development. Truthfully, I never had any need to develop it further, because every party that braved the thing ended up dead or on the run for safer, greener pastures.

In other words, the way I feel about Dwellers of the Forbidden City could be readily compared to the way many, MANY people feel about I6: Ravenloft

Here's the thing: the criticism RfR has of Dwellers is fair. More than fair...it's pretty spot on. When he writes:
Wolfgang Baur is right to suggest that the module is best remembered for its monsters...I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is neither a classic, nor does not deserve its revered status, and it certainly does not deserve to rate as high as thirteen on the list of greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures of all time by Dungeon magazine for the thirtieth anniversary of the Dungeons & Dragons. As written, it simply is not that good, its tournament versus sandbox style of play giving it a split personality and its sandbox elements severely underwritten and underdeveloped in far too many places for the Dungeon Master to bring to the table and make playable without undertaking a great deal of development work.
...he's not wrong at all. When I've run the thing I had the same complaints: I just pushed hard on the "chief's son" premise, and ignored all the failings of the thing, because the adventure didn't last long enough for those failings to appear. The "competition entrance" is pretty much a linear obstacle course. If you ignore that most of the city is undeveloped, PCs can simply wander the streets until they find one of the (detailed) "faction areas" where the adventure suddenly continues. There is a ton of under-utilized, unrealized potential in the adventure...more, there are a ton of unanswered questions that really demand answers: the yuant-ti, the missing trade goods, timelines of the disparate groups interactions with each other, etc.

Lost cities! Snake people! Killer jungle plants! Hell, there's even an illusionist. I love this sort of thing. But my love of these things undermines my ability to look at the adventure critically and rationally, with the jaded, middle-aged (thus, experienced) eyes that I use for the other adventures I've analyzed (like Ravenloft and Dragonlance). My bias for the adventures I love...and that I have nostalgia for...is just as strong and, yes, irrational as what I see in others.

That's a good thing to realize. It is something I need to be cognizant of.

Anyway, I would disagree with pookie that Dwellers of the Forbidden City should only be considered a "classic" for the new monsters it introduces, or that it should be restricted from such a prestigious designation due to the work a DM needs to put in to make it playable. A classic (when used as a noun) is defined as:

a work of art of recognized and established value

and I think that, with regard to adventure modules, there must be a certain amount of "player mass" (i.e. individuals that have played the adventure) for it to be rightly called a classic. And as an adventure published at the height of the game's popularity...and being present on store shelves for years... I1 probably has that mass in a way that many latter day adventures simply do not. And I think that it has established its value in the entertainment it's provided. 

But I'm biased.

[Ravenloft could also be rightly called a "classic" by the same reasoning and, for the record, I never said Ravenloft was not; I simply said it wasn't a very good adventure based on the rule set for which it was written]


  1. Judging modules is particularly difficult because a good DM and/or good players, can make a mediocre module awesome (or the reverse) possibly leaving a false impression of the modules quality.

    1. I think it's more difficult for PLAYERS to judge based on DM performance/competence. But for the DM, I don't think it's particularly difficult to judge whether or not a module performs as a satisfactory play-aid, or whether or not it provides the required level of risk/reward and challenge for a certain level of PCs based on game system and edition.

  2. I think there is a lot of conscious and perhaps subconscious "reading the room" that a DM does at the table. If the players aren't buying into the hook, or are debating the poor return on investment of an adventure, that may be a result of poor design, or maybe bad play/luck (not finding the treasure), or poor DM roleplaying (not selling the theme well). On the fly, I find myself throwing in a random monster if the players seem to be jones'ing for some dice rolling, or start populating on the fly those empty rooms they keep finding. Hard to save a terribly designed module, but a DM does what he can to make every session enjoyable for all. Those players that remember Dwellers or Ravenloft with fondness likely had DMs that made those modules work for them at the table.

    1. This phrase "reading the room" comes up a lot recently. I'm not sure it applies so much to D&D.

      There's are methods to playing D&D, all (more-or-less) dependent on the DM. If the players don't fit the style of a particular DM, the DM probably needs different players. Trying to "read the room" and give the players what THEY want (especially if they have expectations that are widely divergent from a DM's particular style/method of choice) is going to become tiresome to the DM. And if the DM is tired of running, then the game isn't going to be one that lasts very long. Certainly not if one is looking for a game that has an abundance of care, consideration, and effort from the DM.

      Certain adventures facilitate certain methods/styles better. But the game itself has a favored style of play based on the rules it has (and as rules differ between editions, so too might styles).

      Dwellers gives a nice bunch of "stuff" that works well with the AD&D rule set, but it misses out on its potential for a far richer game. It also misses out on tactical objectives that will be IMPORTANT to competent PCs (i.e. those not worried ONLY about "survival").

      Ravenloft does NOT work well with the AD&D rule set, but for players wanting its particular style of play (and who understand how to "play ball" with what's offered), it's a certifiable home run.

      Would Ravenloft have been as popular without the Mentzer version of Basic that established some expectations about being narrated to? That's an interesting question. My group did NOT hold Ravenloft in any particularly high regard, but we had cut our teeth on older versions of the game (and our brand of horror viewing was more Freddy Kruger and Aliens then Hammer-schlock).

  3. And here I thought I was bringing "reading the room" as a novel idea :)

    But I mean that in a more self-reflective way as DM. Not from the perspective of adapting to what the players want/expect, but rather adapting to the discoveries I make at the table that differ from my own expectations set when preparing for the game.

    But to your point, the rule set governs all. There's only so much the DM can do in advance or at the table, to create the thematic of Ravenloft without playing loose with the rules or railroading the players.

  4. Other than Isle of Dread, I never played any of the "classic" modules back in the day. But I've played in, run, or at least read through many of them more recently.

    Pretty sure those GOAT module lists are heavily influenced by player nostalgia than DM nostalgia. And most are based on heuristics rather than analysis of threat level/potential rewards, or encounter density, or anything like that.

    But of course that's just what my gut tells me. I could be way off.