Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Flagship Adventure for the OSR

A while ago I discussed the strong possibility that solid adventures are as important to the OSR as solid rulesets. While there is some really exciting stuff being put out (see Matt Finch's and Jim Raggi's published adventures for some excellent examples) I don't feel that there is a module or series of adventures yet that really qualifies as being the sort of "shared experience" we enjoyed in the early days of the hobby. As Jim rightly points out in a recent post, I didn't really go into a lot of detail as to what I felt the necessary elements of such an adventure would be.

When I think about these archetypal adventures, there are definately some elements they have in common:
*Easily obtained
*Introductory in nature
*Provides a starting point for a campaign
*Provides a breadth of material (not just dungeon)

Now, that last element, "breadth of material" is probably the most important, and I'm going to go into that in detail, but the first two elements are probably the most difficult obstacle the OSR will have to overcome.

Why? Because its too late. (Kind of.)

One big thing modules like Keep on the Borderlands, In Search of the Unkown, and even Temple of the Frog had in common, was that they were included with the game to begin with! That's certainly not all they had in common (again, more on that when "Breadth of Material" is discussed), but its certainly an important element. When you went out and bought your fresh new D&D boxed set, it came with a module in there. For a lot of people that module was Keep on the Borderlands, as it was included with Holmes, Moldvay Basic, and Mentzer Basic (I own one of each version, btw, how sick am I?).

Not a single one of the clones was bundled with a module, for the simple reasons that no one really expected them to be anything but a vehicle to release new supplemental materials for the games they were based on, and the fact that no one has an extra twenty grand or so to dump into a big pile of boxed sets to set adrift into the stormy and fickle seas of the Distribution Gods. However justifiable though, its a big disadvantage. The closest I've seen so far is Matt Finch's Tomb of the Iron God, which clearly states that it is an "introductory adventure for Swords & Wizardry". There is also a short dungeon included with Labyrinth Lord, and another short dungeon with the S&W quickstart rules. Now all of these would appear to have the "introductory in nature" base covered, but... they're missing some key elements (more on this later).

Fortunately, not being bundled with a ruleset is one disadvantage that is easily overcome, as the countless fans of Village of Hommlett, Secret of Saltmarsh, and other iconic adventures will attest to. But "Easily Obtained" is a necessity. Since this hypothetical "Flagship Adventure" is not bundled with a ruleset, its going to have to be visible, available in a printed, physical form (not just .pdf), and easy to get from a lot of vendors. Its also going to have to be, and clearly state that it is, usable with all old-school D&D-based rulesets.

Now, on to

Introductory in Nature

I think its all too easy to interpret "Introductory Adventure" as "Simple, Easy-to-run Dungeon". Most of what we get for introductory adventures lately would really be more appropriately classified as "example dungeons". There's a lot more involved with being "introductory" than just offering a 1st level dungeon. As we old-schoolers are fond of reiterating, this game is about a lot more than combat. Its also about exploration, role-play, character development, world building, and a whole bunch of more ephemeral and harder-to-define elements.

To truly be "Introductory" an adventure needs to present these elements to the fledgling referee, both in advisory terms and through examples, and even the experienced referee can benefit from a "refresher" on many key elements of running a game. While it gets something of a "cookie-cutter" reputation these days, Keep on the Borderlands is an excellent example of all the elements I'll be discussing, so I'll stick to that adventure as a reference point, no slight intended to similarly excellent Introductory adventures like Village of Hommlett, Secret of Saltmarsh, or even Crucible of Freya. It also helps that KotB is by Gary Gygax, who was at the top of his game (no pun intended) at the time of this adventure's release.

Pages 2-5 (a good portion of its 22 pages of text) of KotB are "Notes for the Dungeon Master", in which Gygax gives an excellent summary of the rules of the game, including:
*Determining Armor Class
*Using the Combat Tables
*Movement in Combat
*How to be an effective Dungeon Master
*Dividing Treasure and Computing Experience
*Preparation for the use of the module

Remember that this adventure was included, in a box, with the basic rules. Why reiterate them when they're right there in that other book? Because they're crucial elements of running a game, and so deserve to be reiterated. Gygax also interjects alot of general refereeing advice into this section, like being sure to allow the players ample time to wander their home base, interact with locals, and so on. He encourages the referee to limit classes or races based on their vision of the setting, or to add stuff as well.

It could be argued that it is the non-dungeon material in this adventure that makes it such a good Introductory Module. Providing all this information on how to effectively run things outside the dungeon is just as important as the rules for running the dungeon/subject of the module itself. This is what makes the adventure more than just a static location, and brings us to the next important part of an iconic and enduring adventure - being a good

Starting Point for a Campaign.

Another important element of an enduring adventure is its effectiveness at being a starting point for a campaign. An adventure is more likely by its very nature to have a lasting impact if it is the beginning of an entire campaign, the "place where it all began".

This doesn't necessarily mean the adventure has to be for 1st level adventurers, as I'm using the term "campaign" it its specific sense, rather than as a term to denote the entirety of adventuring groups career. "Campaign" can even be used to denote a referee's entire game setting, with several adventuring groups. For our purposes, "campaign" will hew more closely to "story-arc". This could indeed span the entire career of an adventuring party, but it could just as likely be an episode of their career, like a "season" of a TV series.

Do provide a workable starting point for a campaign, the adventure should have at least some of the following elements:
*A home base
*Multiple adventuring locations
*Some surrounding wilderness
*Notable NPCs
*A place in the campaign setting's mythology
*A sense of history
*A replenishable source of new PCs, hirelings, and NPCs
*A definable villain or group of antagonists

Obviously, an experienced referee can be handed a basic dungeon and build all this stuff around it, either beforehand or on the fly, but that same referee can just as competently build the dungeon itself, so this is beside the point. A big difference between "old-school" and "new school" adventures is that with "new-school" adventures, you are typically given an adventure that consists, in its most fundamental form, of a series of carefully constructed encounters to be conquered, which will provide an appropriate amount of treasure, and the requisite amount of experience points to attain the next couple of levels. To "win" this type of adventure, you basically want to get through as many of these encounters as possible as quickly as possible so you can get on to that all-important goal of advancing the power level of your character (and I'm generalizing things here, obviously not every newer edition game is run this way).

Conversely, much of what is important to an "old-school" adventure happens outside the dungeon or in-between trips to the dungeon. Also, exploration of the dungeon itself is the experience, not simply a means to an end. That's why having all those above elements are so important. If you want to enjoy haggling over the price of daggers, you obviously need a local arms merchant. If you want the players to take an interest in those complex murals on level four, you obviously need some history to exploit. Since the focus of the old-school adventure is not supposed to be on just "killing things and taking their stuff", you need to have all these elements in place as much as you need that exquisitely mapped and populated dungeon.

As the players discover, explore, and exploit all these elements, the "campaign" takes shape around them, organically. Its like giving them a pile of wood, bricks, and tools and seeing what they build. Which brings us to

Breadth of Material

Going back to Keep on the Borderlands as our example, lets take a look at the actual contents of this venerable little booklet:

Detached Cover w/map inside: A lot of referees used this cover as a sort of DM's screen, its got some art on the outside for the players to look at, and a nice big map on the inside, separate from the module itself, so the referee isn't flipping back and forth from page to page as he runs the game. The simple utility of this is often overlooked, and while its probably a bit of a hassle nowadays from a printing standpoint, in my opinion the extra effort is worth it, transforming the module from "booklet" to bonafide "play aid".

Pages 2-5: Introduction and Notes for the Dungeon Master, as detailed above.

Pages 6-7: Player Background, some general notes on "Home Base", the keep.

Pages 8-12: Description of the Keep, the locations within it, notable NPCs, even a menu for the local Inn.

Pages 12-13: Some wilderness encouter areas.

Pages 14-23: Description of the 64 locations within the Caves of Chaos.

Pages 24-25: Addional NPCs, How to desgin floorplans, Tips for the Players, and a Glossary.

Pages 26-28: A example floorplan map, a blank sheet of graph paper, and a chart for creating and listing yet more NPCs.

Also, in the center of the book are four removable pages with a map of the wilderness surrounding the keep, a map of the keep itself, and a two-sided reference sheet with combat tables, lists of equipment, spells, armor, saving throws, and wandering monsters.


All that information in such a small package. And only nine pages of it detailing the dungeon itself. It only takes a quick review of these contents to see why this module, and others like it, was so valuable, enduring, and iconic. It basically contains everything the D&D rulebooks talk about what you can do with the game, and fits it neatly into one slim package designed specifically to be played with at the table. There's enough material here for each referee to take and run with, make it wholly their own, and yet still remain a shared experience from group to group.

Wrapping Up

So hopefully, all that clarifies what I feel would be the crucial elements in designing a flagship adventure for the OSR. Everyone's tastes are different, but I'd like to think I at least touched on what elements the most memorable modules of yore had in common, and what contributed to them being appealing to so many gamers, regardless of all those different tastes.


  1. excellent post. I agree heartily, even if I sort of agree that it may be too late. plus, too much of the OSR is already aimed at folks who have been gaming for years and have already developed micro-niches on their own. But it would be cool to see if something like what you describe could be written. Why don't you write it, Ravyn?

  2. What you need is not just an adventure, but a determined effort to put it in play. Something like a Start A New Campaign Campaign where people are challenged to get as many newbies and ex-gamers at the table as possible and give the flagship adventure a go.

  3. Sorry, but perhaps I missed part of the point of your original post. Certainly there are non-introductory adventures that still may be called to "flagship" prominence. I thought you were calling for something like an OSR "classic" module, not just a new B1, B2, T1, or X1.

  4. Awesome post. An adventure, followed by a "Start a new campaign" campaign, would be great for people across different spectrums of the OSR. It certainly would provide common ground for people to blog and comment as they house rule and play through the adventure. The key would be gathering enough steam by getting people hyped about it.

  5. good post - it's hard not to appreciate Keep. Interesting also, the differences between it an B1.

  6. @JB - You're definitely correct that the "flagship" adventure wouldn't have to be "introductory" in the sense that it should be a 1st level module, etc, but rather in the sense that it provides a heaping helping of referee advice, wilderness, NPCs, etc. I was really just attempting to dissect popular classic modules to see what they all had in common. I could probably blog endlessly on these elements, but KotB seemed like a easy reference point. For higher level examples, look at mods like Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and Descent into the Depths of the Earth. They share a lot of the same elements with KotB, like providing a lot to do outside the main "encounters" area.

  7. Definitely need something that will appeal to both seasoned gamers and newbs.



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