Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Storming the Forbidden City


For the Cauldron convention, I decided I would run a number of scenarios based on the classic (TSR) adventure I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City, an AD&D (1E) module I've blogged about on more than one occasion.

There was, of course, a little impishness to my choice: the (main) convention organizer (the much esteemed Settembrini) is an outspoken critic of David "Zeb" Cook, author of Forbidden City. While I agree that there's plenty to criticize about Zeb's work, it's not ALL bad, and I'm trying, Ringo, to be a Good Shepherd these days...even when it's so darn hard not to be the overly negative 'Tyranny of Evil Men.'

[that's a 90s film reference for you young 'uns]

ANYhoo...I1. Great adventure (IMO) and one I hadn't run in a while. Also, fairly massive in scope (if sketchy in the details): a whole city full of potential danger and antagonists. Far too much for a 4-hour convention time slot...and, yet, the adventure as originally conceived was designed for tournament (convention) play.  The thought that struck me: can I rehab this thing and make it a showstopper?

Having decided to give it a shot, I hit upon the following strategy:
  1. I would offer three separate, successive scenarios, all set in the Forbidden City.
  2. Each scenario would "ramp up" in difficulty (expected level of participating PC).
  3. Each scenario would present a different environmental/situational challenge, despite using the same theme.
  4. Each scenario would offer enough reward ("treasure") to level up the presumed party, allowing players who wished to continue to play each successive scenario.
For the first scenario ("To Rescue A Prince") I used the original tournament scenario from the module (section "A" of the I1 publication). Section A consists of a linear map with 10 encounter areas, including several challenging set pieces. For this scenario, I changed very little of the original scenario; designed for six characters of levels 4th - 7th level, the original pre-gens actually average 6th level. So, I tightened it up by making sure no pregens under 5th would be allowed, made sure I had eight available, and upped the treasure take to ensure that even the 5th level PCs could expect to rise in level...should they survive and succeed at their objective.

I removed the sleep gas trap (it really doesn't make sense, and the reverse gravity field is enough as far as the "reasons" for its inclusion) and changed the bugbears to skulks, which I felt were a little more thematic given the jungle theme while retaining (more-or-less) the danger level (semi-invisible backstabbers are on-par with wookies that more easily surprise).  I previously wrote about the play-testing of this scenario, and found that four hours was just a tiny bit too short to get through, though I chalked that in part due to the party's wizard getting eaten by crocs in the first encounter and thus having some difficulty with the more populated encounters (tasloi and whatnot).

[unfortunately, even though the Cauldron party retained their MU (and, in fact, carried a second spell-caster...a fighter/magic-user) the convention group would still fail to make it to the final encounter in the four-hour time slot]

My second convention scenario ("The House of Horan") was also taken directly from I1. The wizard Horan is named as the mastermind behind the newly organized and ambitious raiding groups from the City; he resides with his apprentice in a well-kept, walled compound that contains his house, gardens, and more than a few guardsmen (bullywugs, leopards, and...*sigh*...bugbears). For a con, I set the adventure one week following the first, giving adequate time for the party to recover their strength and (as background/intro to the scenario), discover through careful scouting this "suspicious stronghold" in the midst of the ruined city.

Horan's house is quite a different scenario from the linear affair that is the original tournament adventure. It is, in fact, extremely open: a classic housebreaking situation, the PCs are given full autonomy to decide how they approach the thing. It is exceptionally dangerous, even for a party of 6th - 8th level PCs; the first time I play-tested, it resulted in a TPK. The second play-test wasn't much better, despite the PCs knowing (somewhat) what to's just very difficult to tackle a 12th level wizard in his home, if he's prepared for such a possibility with reasonable defenses. 

[the Cauldron players fared all right: a couple deaths, a couple zero-outs, but they managed to conquer the wizard while playing on the edge of their seats. It was a near thing...which is the way I like to run adventures, just by the way]

For the third scenario ("Shrine of the Demon Goddess"), I crafted an entirely new adventure: a three level, traditional dungeon of 27 encounters for 7th - 9th level characters. As readers might surmise from the title there is, in fact, a demon in the thing: a type V demon, inspired by (and foreshadowed by) the first encounter location of the tournament adventure:
"The walls of the alcove are worked with carvings of snakes and men in a pastoral scene and at its back stands a large statue of a snake-bodied, six-armed woman."
The adventure module, as published, has no real "base of operations" or headquarters of yuan-ti...something that's been pointed out by plenty of folks, along with a general "incompleteness" to the thing. But the very incompleteness provides plenty of potential for DMs/designers to add to the Forbidden City...which is what I did, creating a temple within a temple, complete with catacombs, remnants of the prior (pre-snake) religion/culture, and a Hell-like cavern section full of dretches and assorted badness, including a pool of inky black capable of transforming normal folks into snake-folk.

The City: lots of room for more lairs.

Good stuff, in other words.

Scenario three also has plenty of treasure squirreled away, at least three large pockets of it. When play-tested at home, my players found troves #1 and #3...the Cauldron players found #2 and, yes, it all turned out as decidedly deadly as a DM could ask for (if you're giving away big heaping piles of loot, there better be the potential for a decent body count). 

*ahem* I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City is available at DriveThru for a grand total of $4.99 (PDF only...sorry), it's easy enough for people to see the bulk of my first two scenarios, including maps. As for the third scenario? Eh...I'll probably just make it available here on Ye Old Blog as a free download in the next few days...just as soon as I can get my maps scanned. And, yes, it will contain my notes/changes (especially treasure counts) for the first two scenarios. Look for, probably.

All right...that's enough for now. I'll talk some of the specifics of my Cauldron play experience in a future post.

: )


  1. Thanks for writing - looking forward to seeing your write up on Friday. (definitely plan to steal it) I love I1 and I think my players need some jungle rift valley ruins in their lives

  2. I1 is one of those adventures that is a classic based on its potential not its execution.

    Not a knock on Zeb, just probably the process of shoehorning the tournament original and then some expanded content into 32 pages.

    Glad you added some to this classic looking forward to checking it out.

    1. I actually like quite a bit of the execution of the reasons I changed very little for my first two scenarios.

      I1 would be a lesser work (IMO) if it included a 200 page campaign bible detailing every city block.

    2. Yes, it definitely leaves a lot of room for the DM to come up with ideas for what’s going on in all those buildings! Just exactly what’s going on with that structure with the five onion domed towers?!

  3. Great module, but my DMing skills were not up to the task back in the 80s to take full advantage of its possibilities. Definitely would’ve made a Lovecraft connection with that building in the upper left of the map with the Cthulhu statues. I bought the modules because of Erol Otus’s painting of the Bullywugs!

    1. That's a pretty good reason. Several good EO illustrations in I1.