Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 6

Still doing the research on some new physics blog posts, but in the meantime, I have a lot of old school Dungeons & Dragons to catch up on! So before I share more science tricks, here’s part 6!

CB1: Conan Unchained (1984), by David Cook. As a company, TSR was not immune to the allure of making more money by licensing deals.  Later, I’ll discuss some products that will blow your mind! One of the more obvious choices was to take advantage of the popularity of a certain barbarian, and the actor who played him!

Obviously, the module is based on the works of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan and one of my favorite authors! Also, the photograph of Schwarzenegger shows that the module was intended to capitalize on the two Conan movies, released in 1982 and 1984.

TSR took a number of stabs at broadening their appeal by making tie-ins to movies. None of them were particularly successful, I believe. (I own the one below, btw, and will talk about it in detail another time.)

But Conan was a perfect fit for D&D, since Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery adventures and detailed world building were major inspirations for the game in the first place, along with Tolkien’s work!

The adventure is set in REH’s Hyborian world, around the Vilayet Sea. Hyboria is said to be an age of humankind long before our modern world, and lost and forgotten.

Pregenerated characters are, of course, provided, taken from Conan stories. Interestingly, Juma and Nestor in fact come from pastiches written by other authors. Valeria is a Howard original, from the story Red Nails, and is a genuine badass.

REH, despite his reputation, had a heck of a lot of respect for women as warriors, philosophers, artists, and rulers. In Red Nails, Valeria is a mercenary who ends up on the run after a commanding officer tries to assault her. She kills him.

One thing about the stats of Conan in Unchained! surprised me at the time: he doesn’t have 18/00 strength! Having read the stories again as an adult, though, this makes sense. Conan is strong, but in REH’s stories he gets out of trouble with wits as much as strength. Note also: Conan is smart! Intelligence 14! He’s no dim-witted barbarian.  And his barbarian instincts make him less surprised than an ordinary human.

D&D rules still aren’t quite a perfect fit for the world of Conan, so the module provides three new rules to help. The first is that some monsters have a fear statistic, because some monsters are so horrifying that they can paralyze a character with fear. This fear statistic provides a cosmic horror feeling for the adventure. REH was a contemporary of Lovecraft, and his Conan stories often included cosmic weirdness and were as much horror as fantasy.

The second new rule is the use of Hero Points, which can be spent to allow ridiculously heroic acts. This anticipates the 1990 game Torg (talked about in a previous post) and its use of possibility points for much the same purpose.

This sort of system also anticipated 3rd edition D&D and beyond. In 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, characters were generally treated as nothing special. Especially at 1st level, they can be killed instantly and hardly have any special abilities until they climb the experience ranks. Later editions of D&D have given characters much more versatility at low levels, and a more “chosen one” feeling to them.

The third new rule in Unchained! is accelerated natural healing. There aren’t any clerics in Hyboria, so healing spells are pretty much non-existent. The new healing rule assumes that there’s *something* about Hyboria that allows characters to recover from damage at a ridiculous pace.

But what is the adventure itself? The PCs start as mercenaries in a Turanian army, but the army is destroyed by a supernatural threat. They find themselves abducted as slaves by a roving Kozak tribe, and must escape or win the tribe’s respect. Eventually, the PCs cross paths with a damsel in distress who is being hunted by the foul sorcerer Bhir-Vedi, the jerk who wrecked the army at the adventure’s beginning. They must work their way to Vedi’s tower and stop him from summoning a monstrous evil!

The module is very linear, but has its fun in the open-ended stretch as prisoners in the Kozak camp and then later as crew members on a Machiavellian pirate ship! There are lots of ways to resolve these particular situations.

I feel like the module does a good job capturing the atmosphere of a Conan story, and the Hyborian world. Overall, it is nothing groundbreaking, but is crafted with respect to the source material. In fact, it includes a couple of nods to REH classics: a giant serpent and an intelligent evil ape-like man.

TSR would go further in 1985, and publish a Conan RPG based on their Marvel Superheroes rules. Curiously, I never owned this; perhaps I felt burned by their license-hobbled Indiana Jones RPG?  There were no rules provided to make your *own* characters in the Indiana Jones game: the license-holders apparently didn’t want anyone playing adventures of anyone other than Indiana Jones.

The AD&D Conan line would continue for one more module, CB2: Conan Against Darkness, set in the time that Conan is a king… but that is another story.

PS the only REH Conan novel is The Hour of the Dragon, and it is an amazing conclusion to the saga. It also includes Conan giving an incredible perspective on religious tolerance.

PPS remember I mentioned crazy licensing? In 1985, TSR also published an All My Children soap opera boardgame!!!

Magic Realm (1979), by Richard Hamblen.  Our next entry isn’t D&D, or even a role-playing game, but represents a fascinating early attempt to make something kinda-like-D&D-but-not-quite-D&D: Magic Realm!

So what is Magic Realm? Simply put, it’s a fantasy adventure roleplaying game without the roleplaying! You have a character with unique skills who goes about collecting treasure, fighting monsters, casting spells, and leveling up!

My impression is that the folks at Avalon Hill saw the explosive popularity of D&D, which was really taking off in the late 70s, and wanted to capitalize on the excitement. They were experts at strategy games, however, not RPGs, so they made something that is a curious hybrid.

The box description notes the amazing fact that this game can be played with one to *sixteen* players! With that in mind, one should be verrrrrry suspicious of the playing time “one hour and up…”

In fact, Magic Realm is infamous as being the second-most complicated board game ever made! The setup of the board alone can take an hour! Also, the rules are so complex that they are broken into multiple play sessions of increasing complexity, i.e. “encounters.”

In the original printing of Magic Realm, there were seven “encounters.” The second edition, which I now have, simplifies it into four.

With such complexity, one may wonder: why even bother? The answer, at least for me, is that the game is BEAUTIFUL. The map is randomly generated each game by connecting hex tiles together. Below are just a few.

In advanced “encounters,” spells can be cast to change the nature of the board, and then it gets *really* gorgeous.

The game is played as a sequence of turns, in which everyone writes down their planned moves in advance, and then things are resolved at the same time. You keep track of a LOT of stuff!

Note the “victory requirements” section. Another fascinating part of the game is that you can, in essence, choose your own goals, and work towards them.

The complexity of the game is also due to the many, many, many counters and tokens you use! Here are my *two* organized boxes of them. It’s a bit nerve-wracking, because if you lose even one of these pieces, you’re kinda screwed.

But the game tokens keep track of EVERYTHING. There are monster tokens, horse tokens…

… weapon tokens, armor tokens…

… treasure cards…

… magic spell cards…

… and even, I kid you not, tokens for SOUNDS. (These are used to indicate the locations of significant monster encounters.)

So, before starting play, one must set up the map, place all sorts of encounter tokens on the board, set up the treasure and monster card, and choose characters. And probably more that I forgot.

Note also the “dwellings” section. There are NPCs in the game that you can work with!

But the real highlight of the game is the beautiful artwork for the sixteen possible characters. These really sparked my imagination as a kid.

Here is a closer look at some of the character illustrations.

The back of the card gives character statistics. Note that, like in an RPG, one can get more experienced. The Druid goes from Herbalist to Animalist to Soothsayer to Druid. The D&D inspiration is obvious here.

But, I hear you asking, is it any fun to play? And I would like to tell you, but… I’ve never played the game at maximum complexity! I’ve made it through 2 out of 4 of the “encounters!”

Magic Realm has had a long-lasting cult following, though. It remained in print until 1998, when Avalon Hill went out of business. Folks still play it today, and one fan wrote a Java-based app that allows online multiplayer and handles the setup.

I am still determined to learn to play it well, myself. I originally got a copy from my Uncle Bob when I was a kid, before I had a good chance to learn it well. (I think that I still have that beat-up first edition at home – need to bug my mom to send me the remains.) I especially want to see if I still have the first edition rules – it would be fun to compare with the newer ones and see if the second edition does, in fact, make any more sense!

Magic Realm’s modular board for exploration has inspired a number of games since. One of those I’m aware of is the 2003 Return of the Heroes, which uses square board pieces.

One of these days, I’ll hopefully play a full game of Magic Realm, and I will report back if I do!

PS the most complicated board game ever made is generally thought to be The Campaign for North Africa, which also came out in 1979. It reportedly takes 1500 HOURS to play a complete game!

Under the Storm Giant’s Castle (1979), by Thomas McCloud. But let’s get back to some Dungeons & Dragons! Next up we look at another classic that was published by the remarkably prolific Judges Guild.  These early adventures tend to be more freewheeling than the TSR ones being published at the same time.

In the adventure, a storm giant couple has their child kidnapped by a worm-like creature that takes it through a small hole into the magical cloud that supports their floating castle. Not able to pursue, the giants call the tiny PCs to give chase!

It is an unusual dungeon, and some fun rules are given for strange effects that arise from wandering through a magical cloud.

The adventure sports a number of new monsters, including an evil race of balloon-like people who pop almost instantly when hit! It also takes advantage of the setting to include a number of monsters one associates with air, such as pegasus.

Curiously, the author Thomas McCloud submitted his adventure for a Judges Guild “design a dungeon level” contest. He didn’t read the contest rules carefully and provided more than asked, but was invited to publish it separately!

The adventure is typical of early D&D adventures – not much detail is provided for the rooms, only a bare-bones description: monsters, traps, treasure. But there is a bit more to the story, which makes for a nice twist at the end.

The adventure is intended for low-level adventurers, but if they make a wrong turn along the way, they might run into, uh, trouble?

Overall, Under the Storm Giant’s Castle a fun, unusual adventure! It’s nice to see a setting that is significantly different from the traditional dark dungeon or ruined temple. I wrap up with an image of the storm giants’ child and the kidnapping worm!

GA3: Tales of Enchantment (1993), by Jim Musser.  Let’s jump ahead in time again to the later era of TSR 2nd edition, to a clever adventure that requires some good politics on the part of the players.

GA3 was the final module in the series of “general adventures” (GA), meaning that they were not tied to a particular campaign setting and could be easily fit in anywhere!

The GA series might have continued, if not for TSR’s decision to end the letter-number coding of adventures in 1994.

The module is set in the Whispering Widow woods, long reported to be haunted. After an uptick in strange events near the woods, and the disappearance of a young man, the PCs are hired to investigate and bring the boy home.  The adventure is quite unguided: the PCs simply enter the forest and wander around, until they’ve stumbled upon enough clues to figure out what is going on and take action.

And it turns out that what is going on in a Romeo and Juliet story: a forbidden romance between the young man and one of the magical beings of the forest. To get a good outcome for the adventure, the PCs must figure out a good solution to the conflict.

To the author’s credit, he doesn’t provide any good solutions to the problem himself, but trusts the players will figure out an unusual resolution “outside the box.”  The adventure is strongly reminiscent of 1983’s Beyond the Crystal Cave, which we’ve discussed previously, which also featured runaway lovers hiding in a magical wilderness where most encounters can be solved by wits, rather than warfare!

LNQ1: Slayers of Lankhmar (1992), by Slade Henson.  Our next old school adventure is one that I only learned about recently, and it really is a treasure!

Slayers of Lankhmar is set in the fictional world of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series of fantasy tales, called Nehwon. The main city, Lankhmar, was introduced to the AD&D setting in 1985.

A couple of adventures were published for the setting in 1986, but then there was a lull until the early 1990s. (I will talk about these two another time.)

Slayers of Lankhmar is easily my favorite of the published Lankhmar adventures, as it is quite unique among all D&D adventures! A powerful merchant has been murdered, and the perpetrator has hidden in the forest. The PCs join the hunt for him. (Its him on the lovely cover.) The catch is that the criminal grew up wandering those forests, and is an excellent woodsman and trapper. The result is that the PCs must track a ranger-type on his home turf, all while avoiding the many traps he leaves in his wake!

If this plot sounds vaguely familiar, you’re probably thinking of this guy. But you, as the PCs, are hunting him!

The PCs start at a camp on the wilderness map, wandering the forest tracking down the criminal. Meanwhile, the DM secretly charts the progress of the criminal towards his escape; a timetable of events and traps he’ll set are given!

The wily murderer is not the only threat, however: in addition to wandering forest monsters, there are competing groups of mercenaries hunting as well that the PC party could run afoul of! It would be cruel for the PCs to wander around, constantly being chewed up by traps. To avoid this, they are accompanied by 9 NPCs who can take some of the beating. The extra NPCs come from trading cards! In the early 1990s, TSR sold AD&D trading cards, and were clearly trying to market them in adventures such as Slayers.

I don’t want to spoil the whole adventure, but suffice to say that there are a number of twists along the way, and careless players could make life very hard for their characters in the future, even if they survive and succeed in their mission!

PCs must also take careful account of their supplies. They are wandering through the forest for days, and hunger and thirst can be as much of an enemy as the sneaky fugitive!

Overall, Slayers of Lankhmar is a really fun and unusual adventure! I suspect that it could be a challenge for a DM to run properly, but well-worth it for the unique experience.

The adventure was so popular, that a sequel, Avengers in Lankhmar, was released in 1995, in which the players hunt a fugitive in the city!

Okay, I’ll wrap up this post here for the night! Stay tuned for more “old school” to come!

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