Monday, September 25, 2023

Grading Classic Module Towns

Today's assignment is to run through the town-ish settings from nine classic--or at least old--D&D modules. Scoring is based on four categories:
Details: how well the setting is described; 
Intrigue: are there reasons to interact with the setting beyond spending a night at the inn and replenishing supplies, 
NPCs: are there interesting characters in town? And 
Map: did the cartographer make an effort? Includes maps of structures if any are provided.

As always, this is a non-comprehensive list. If you know of a town that I've missed--I know there was one in Ravenloft--let me know and maybe I'll get to it in a future post.

Hommlet (T1 V. of H.)  Grade: A

If you've ever read this blog before you probably expected this. Likewise, if you've ever played/run T1, you probably expected this as well. Weighing in at only 8-ish pages, each building in town gets a couple of paragraphs describing the residents and where they hide their life savings. There's also the agents of Elemental Evil lurking about, the unspoken tensions between the cult of Cuthbert and the old time Druids, Rufus and Burne's castle and the accompanying displacement of traditional authority; it goes on. Slight points lost because these points are so subtly discussed that a DM really needs to devise their own means of injecting this intrigue into the adventure. And the map is good by early TSR standards, which is not a very high standard.

Details: A+
Intrigue: A-
Map: B+


Garrotenstadt, AKA Shankton, Murdergard, Assassinville, etc. (L2 Assassins Knot)   A-

I'm still not done making fun of the name of this burg but, despite the name, Garrotenford is provided with a wealth of detail and in depth descriptions of all the "worthy" townsfolk (those with levels in some class) plus a table summarizing the entire populace. The entire adventure will likely take place within city limits--unless you go off on that silly octopus hunt--so high marks for intrigue. And this town wins the best-in-class map score because it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only published TSR map ever to include latrine facilities. 

Details: B+ 
Intrigue: A
NPCs: A 
Map: A-


Orlanes (N1 Reptile God) A-

The plot requires that the PCs skulk around town investigating the populace, dragging up muck while drawing the attention of nefarious elements. Most if not all of the residents are provided with almost Hommlet-esque level of details--though many homes are abandoned which makes the job slightly easier. A solid town with a good plot, this is the first modge penned by Douglas Niles and is likely his best effort as well. 

Details: A
Intrigue: A+
NPCs: A-
Map: B


Restenford (L1 Bone Hill) B+ 

For those who don't know, I have a whole other blog dedicated to this module and its quirky town full of weirdos. For those who do know about that other blog, you're probably surprised Resty finished this low in the grading; we'll get to that later. R'ford is loaded with intriguing NPCs like the well-meaning but incompetent baron who barely rules over a town whose citizens feel nothing but disdain for him; his wife who carries on an affair with her spiritual advisor; his daughter who openly seeks his throne; and a manipulative sorcerer who is the real authority in town. And let's not forget the psychotic priest or the treacherous bait salesman. But this burg is dragged down by it's maps; underwhelming even by the standards of the day, it loses even more points for the building plans; they all suffer from 1-story syndrome, and are so poorly laid out they are used in architecture schools as comedic relief. It seems unfair that the maps should count for a quarter of the grade here but I don't make the rules--Pelltar does--so we're stuck with giving Resty a B+.  
Details: B+
Intrigue: A+
NPCs: A+
Map: C-


The KEEP (B2 KotB)  B

Another place you probably thought would rate higher, given my predilections. This one, though, rates a B by intent. Gygax intentionally left out details like names for any of the NPCs and intrigue for any of the KEEP's residents--excepting the Cleric of Evil Chaos in apartment 7b; who is the Zert of the Borderlands--so that novice DMs could provide these details themselves. Not necessarily a strategy I appreciate, but this was early in the days of module production, points for experimenting. Anyway, the KEEP is is really an over-achieving way station with the option of being developed into a cool town setting.

Details: A-
Intrigue: C
NPCs: B-
Map: B


Ducal City of Rhoona (X3 Curse of Xanathon) C

I just spent the last month lambasting this module for it's scripted plot and mis-drawn maps, now I'm taking down it's setting: the City of Rhoona. Despite almost all the action of X3 taking place within Ducal city limits, there is no incentive for the PCs to engage with the city outside of the Ducal Plot. The city provides little more than Ducal window dressing for the adventure; the only NPCs described are either inhabitants of one of the adventuring locales or the rabid dwarf and cryptic beggar-priest from scene 1 whose job it is to direct the PCs toward the adventure. While the neighborhoods are described in a general way--all buildings are 1-story, groan--Rhoona loses points because there are no details provided for any places or NPCs who are not directly involved in the action--you've already broken into the Ducal Barracks/temple/Ducal Palace before you will encounter them. And the map is half-assed, providing blank circles and squares that you have to fill in with business establishments. Though there are random tables provided to assist with that task, this yields a generic No-Place of a city.  

Details: C-
Intrigue: B
NPCs: B- 
Map: C

Suderham (A3 Aery of the Slave Lords) C

"Are you alright?"
Due to the tournament origins of this module, the secret city of Suderham is more like a puzzle for the PCs to solve than an actual urban setting to interact with. You're supposed to get in and follow the clues to the drop zone as quickly as possible, no time for loitering over pints at the tavern, joining the thieves guild for a heist, or patronizing any of the brothels in town--though 5 points to Gryfindor for including brothels. While the description goes to length to discourage interactions with NPCs other than a couple of informants who contribute only a single line of dialog each to the experience, and avoiding a couple of miscreants intent on slowing the PCs down, there is the assumed cabal of abolitionists who are providing the informants with clues to pass on to the PCs. An obsessive wingnut like you should be able to develop that strand of intrigue into something. And, sadly, the map is very basic: a big old square filled with outsized single-story (groan) buildings, not much thought was put into this. I'm working on the assumption that the 1 square = 50' scale is a mistake, otherwise I'm downgrading the C- to a D-. But I do really like EO's illustration of the guards at the gate.
Details: C
Intrigue: C+
NPCs: D+
Map: C-


Guido's Fort (B5 Horror on the Hill) D

From the third Niles-penned module on this list, Guido's Fort really doesn't deserve to be here because it is only meant to be a way station, a place to kick off the adventure and move on. But too bad, you give the place a name like Guido's Fort and then don't bother telling us who the crap Guido is? You brought this on yourself, Niles.
Details: D
Intrigue: D-


Saltmarsh (U1 Sinister Secret of) D-

I know that some folks have published a posthumously detailed town of Saltmarsh, we're not talking about that place. This grade is based solely on the text of the original release of U1 back in 1841, which I've already written about at length. This gets such an exceptionally low grade because, unlike Guido's Fort, the PCs are expected to loiter in this town for several days interacting with a town that the MWs didn't bother fleshing out--beyond telling us that it resembles a small 14th c. fishing village on the southern coast of England--not good enough for the weight this town is supposed to pull in this adventure. It earns a D because there are some NPCs mentioned--the infamous "Receiver" and some rent-boys who will help row the party out to the smuggler's ship. There is also some intrigue--smoking out the Receiver and taking it/them down could be a good follow-up adventure--but ultimately the authors didn't bother to make an effort here so screw them.
Details: F
Intrigue: D
Map: F-

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Xanathon III: Yada yada yada

I know you've all moved on and by continuing to harp on X3 I am committing a heinous act of post-mortem equine assault, but here I am with nothing else to say, so, with apologies to Monsieur Niles, once more into the breach.

As mentioned in previous posts, this heavily plotted adventure requires that you follow a set of prescribed "scenarios," each hopefully providing enough clues to lead the players to the next. For those wanting a refresher, here are the 5 steps to recovering from this module:

  1. break into the Ducal Barracks in order to find justification for breaking into the barracks. 
  2. investigate the temple of Cretian and contemplate why demon worship is so popular in this town
  3. follow the mad priest's instructions on how to find the crystallized soul of a mad priest. 
  4. use the Soul Crystal to bully the mad priest into doing your bidding--or just kill the jerk, and 
  5. cure the duke of his madness while the Evil Draco and his henchfolk wait in ambush in a room that is 280 feet away (~1.6 km). 

Despite--or because of--this active plot line that, ahem, guides the action of this module, many of the significant encounters are described in a very static fashion. For instance, according to the key to the barracks, Draco Stormsailer, treacherous Master of the Ducal Guard, will never actually be in his lavish quarters in the Barracks; probably because he's concerned--with good reason--that the rickety stairs to the officers quarters might collapse underneath him. [There are two sets of stairs to the officers quarters on the upper level of the barracks, both of which are described as rickety to the point that they will collapse if the PCs try to bash open the door at the top of the stairs.]

Instead, Draco is permanently stationed in the Ducal Linen Closet (DLC)--along with two officers of the Ducal Guard--waiting to jump the PCs when they arrive to cure the Ducal Curse. It should be noted that there is no door connecting the Ducal Linen Closet to the Ducal bedroom, so it is quite likely that the PCs will be able to save the Duke without ever encountering Draco. There is, however, a secret door mentioned in the write up of the text that does not appear in the map. Probably the cartographer left it out on purpose as revenge for the fiasco with Xanathon's lab.

Shortest route from Draco's "ambush" to the Ducal Sleeping Chamber

The only entrance to the Ducal bedroom shown in the floor plan is from the Ducal Mistress's room (99) next door. Which means that, well, it means that someone screwed up the map. I've been trashing on this modge for a while now, but I doubt very much that this was Niles's intent. It's my assumption that there was meant to be a door from room 103 (Ducal Sitting Room) into room 107 (Ducal Boudoir) and a secret door to connect room 105 (Ducal Dressing Room) to 107--though who would bother putting a secret door to their dressing room? Especially since there is a non-secret door from your dressing room to your sitting room?

Demotion in the Ranks

In addition to Draco two other officers of the Ducal Guard are listed as "not present" when the PCs raid the Barracks in stage 1 of this fiasco: Draco's High Commander will be with his mistress in town while one of his two Captains's quarters will be unoccupied by its resident Captain. We do learn that the High Commander is a 9th level fighter while the Captain is a 6th level fighter.

We also know that, back in the Ducal Linen Closet, Draco's two companions-in-ambush are a 9th level fighter, and a 6th level Fighter. It seems safe to assume that these are the same individuals who were absent from the barracks, except that the 9th level fighter is now called "Captain" and the 6th level fighter is called "Lieutenant." Which means that Draco must be displeased with them as he has busted his High Commander down to captain and his captain down to Lieutenant. Which probably make sense depending on how things went in stage 1. If the PCs slaughtered and hacked their way through the barracks killing off one third of the entire force, then, yeah, you might demote your remaining officers. 

It should be noted that there are no lieutenants listed in the barracks.