HelgaCon IV - Into the Forgotten Realms

On Sunday morning of HelgaCon I was a lot better rested, getting up for the final morning slot. I'd been looking forward to this game all weekend, because it was Paul (always an excellent DM) running the Ed Greenwood AD&D adventure "Into the Forgotten Realms" from Dragon #95 (from March 1985). A lot of people say that early Forgotten Realms is a prime example of old-school play (prior to later developments & merchandising), and since it's not a milieu that I ever touched, I was eager to experience it and learn more.

We had 8 players around the table, choosing from pregenerated characters included in the adventure: 5th-8th level, with fairly high ability scores (most with 2-3 bonuses by AD&D rules), but absolutely no magic items (or even missile weapons). The goal was to infiltrate an abandoned college of sorcery, head off an evil warlord to the site, and confiscate as much magic as possible (so as to keep out of the warlord's hands). Tournament scoring would be used as per use of the adventure at Gen Con XVII in 1984, on a per-player basis (with one player "winning" the event).

One funny thing that happened was this: I was one of the few players who had a physical copy of the classic AD&D PHB at the table (and wow, is it beat up at this point). To begin with, I was thinking that it might be useful for me to take a magic-user so I could reference the various spells easily, but other players were even more eager to do that, so I started looking at the pregens for a backup plan. And the funny thing is that one of the clerics' established personality/background descriptions almost exactly matched my longest running-character ever, a semi-whacked out priest of a war deity with a bit of a Napoleon complex. (From the adventure text: "He prides himself in, and enjoys, being a skillful fighter and an accomplished thinking-on-his-feet battlefield tactician, or 'general.'... compulsively honest, finding it difficult to be dishonest or even diplomatic. He is always blunt, open, and truthful, even when it hurts himself or his friends...") So with a big laugh, I figured I could play that, having done so for about 5 years in the 3E era (in fact, that old character's name -- at one point mangled by a hard-of-hearing NPC -- is actually where the "Helga" in "HelgaCon" originated from).

I did try to leverage both this PC and my knowledge of AD&D rules to give a lot of recommendations to the rest of the party and I hope (similar to BigFella's writeup of another game) that this was helpful in a tournament context and not too aggravating for other players. Maybe, maybe not.

Having now played and read the adventure, here is a critique that I can't avoid: This really did ring my "new school" bell in numerous ways. (And it didn't do much to dispel my impression of Ed Greenwood's design work.) Stuff like: (1) A big focus in the adventure text on "role-playing", with fairly detailed personality & background motivations given for the pregenerated PCs, and that used as the basis for points-award votes at the end. (Commendably, Paul downplayed this in practice.) (2) At the same time, a surprisingly small number of monsters to fight in the dungeon; we fought two, with another two avoided that could potentially have been released as traps. (3) A lot of time, emphasis, and detail on the NPCs, their motivations and background, room-by-room prior activity in the dungeon, etc. The primary goal of the adventure is ultimately: puzzling out the identity & negotiating with the master villain of the place (who is basically invulnerable to the PCs). I can't help but feel like the spotlight falling on this particular NPC resembles Greenwood's use of a character like Elminster.

The other thing that's super puzzling to me (and this was known going in: Paul & I had discussed it previously) is the use of per-person individual tournament scoring. The small amount of tournament play I've known has been team-based, with points awarded to the whole party, and the higher-scoring teams advancing to later rounds (such as writeups of G1-3 in Dragon circa 1978; tournament A/C modules published around 1980; or even the 3E D&D tournament at Gen Con 2004). But apparently there was some point in the "silver age" period circa 1984 when individual scoring was used instead -- and this also seems characteristically "new school" to me, that instead of pulling together as a team for an in-game goal, players are in some sense expected to compete with each other as to which individual character gets the most success or attention during play. I really wish I had more detail on the exact evolution of that tournament scoring over time.

So that's my critique of Greenwood and the design style of the mid-1980's (post-Dragonlance; within the year that Gygax would leave TSR) -- and I think it was really super educational for me to get to experience it firsthand, from the POV of a player interacting with an unknown adventure, and I value that greatly.

That said, Paul ran excellent game and it was a lot fun. He made good choices about parts to downplay (like not requiring deep in-character-acting; asking for vote assessments based on overall contributions to the game). His sense of pacing, responsiveness to player intent, fair-handedness at running the AD&D rules, and, ultimately, role-playing the insane undead boss at the end were without flaw and really compelling. He's independently come to the same philosophy I have about miniatures, not using them or battlemaps for combat at all (although minis were on the table for marching order), and again I like the flow of the game that way as a player. The other players in the game were exemplary as well, really working well together as a team and exploring basically the entire complex within the allotted time limit. At the end, voting took place under the rules provided (basically), with our very brave front-line thief player winning the overall award -- applause all around, a mint copy of Dragon #95 passed out as a prize, and then we wrapped up another year of HelgaCon (packing up, goodbyes, and travel to diverse parts).

Really great play and experiences all around that weekend, can't wait to do it again!

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  1. I wasn't able to post this over at Grognardia, but I will take it that you agree in a general sort of way with BigFella, so I suppose I can with some justification post my response here. Besides, you provide thoughtful commentary on things, so maybe you'll decide there's something worth responding to in what I say.

    Anyway, on to it:

    I think BigFella had a great post, and I think I agree with him at least partially about "story" - letting a story evolve is good, railroading is bad. That said, there's a great deal that can be done with players you know well: if I throw at my players a chance to go rescue a village from an evil dragon, they ARE going to take it... not because I'm railroading 'em, but just because of who they are.

    I think blaming the prominence of the story-driven module on Dragonlance is, even allowing for hyperbole, largely inaccurate. DL was popular, yes, but roleplaying was already moving in the direction in question. Games in other genres were already starting to move in that direction in the interest of providing a roleplaying experience that mirrored the experience of reading stories in the relevant genre.

    Superhero adventures tended to story driven, and both Villains & Vigilantes (1978) and Champions (1981) published a lot of story-formatted adventures. Call of Cthulhu (1981) adventures told stories in the sense you're talking about, rather than being "sandboxy." James Bond 007 (1983) likewise tended to have story-driven adventures, as did Marvel Superheroes RPG (1984) and the insanely well-selling Paranoia (1984), even if Paranoia stories were silly.

    The first Dragonlance module was released in 1984, and at that time it reflected a growing trend in the broader industry. By the time the original run of the modules was done in 1986, a LOT of games - maybe even most - were putting out modules with a clear and determined storyline to them, and critical darlings such as Ghost Busters (1986), WFRP (1986), and West End Games' Star Wars (1987) pretty much assumed those kinds of adventures were standard. Dragonlance was part of a new design philosophy in AD&D, but the idea hardly started with DL. It was an expression of, not the cause of, the trend that culminated in the dominant design philosophy for adventures for AD&D 2nd edition (1987).

    (As a side note, it's interesting to me the degree to which at least one game that would seemingly lend itself to such adventures - MERP (1984) - tended to do its modules "old-school" style. Looking back at the Bree module, I see basically nothing in the way of story-driven scenarios!)

    1987 is an important year in this trend because of AD&D, 2nd edition, but also because of another game. Ars Magica (1987) was another critical darling and a game-changer inasmuch as it laid the foundation for Vampire: the Masquerade (1991), which radically de-emphasized the gamist element of rpgs and brought LEGIONS of new players into the hobby, all of whom saw mechanically-light, story-driven play as the norm. But even in between Ars Magica and Vampire, Shadowrun (1989) and Torg (1990) both made big splashes in the roleplaying world and both relied pretty much entirely on story-driven adventures of the kind you're talking about.

    In any case, the trend started early, before or in the early 1980s, even, and I think it started with games that were out to give players a very specific experience, an experience of being "in" a superhero (V&V, Champions) or Lovecraft story (Call of Cthulhu). By the time the DL series started, there were a lot of games that relied on story-driven adventures, and by the time the DL series was done, it is arguably true that fantasy games were one of the last outposts of non-story-driven adventures.


  2. (cont'd from before)

    People like story-driven adventures - some people, anyway - because they provide an emotional arc to the experience, a narrative cohesion that is often not present for sandbox games (sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't). They CAN BE, but aren't NECESSARILY, rail-roady... although they are most easily written that way, and so lazy writers often do. But the best story-driven adventures make only broad assumptions about the PC party (like, for instance, they aren't evil), provide a variety of possible hooks to motivate the actions, and use a very generic story arc.

    How can anyone argue with a "story-driven" adventure that starts with a hook 90% of all parties will take and presents them with events that are tied together with some backstory? Why is "backstory" a dirty word, here? If the obvious solution to the problem presented by the adventure is for the players to figure out that they can use the fact that the corrupt priest is actually the one who hired them to persuade the bandit leader - who hates the priest - to abandon his campaign of terror on the nearby village less of a test of their ingenuity because it doesn't rely on game mechanics? Like I said, I get the complaints about railroady adventures, sure, but I'm not sure that "story-driven" and "railroady" are interchangeable.

    1. Well, I must say that I've been burned by them too many times (both player and DM of published modules) not to be cautious and wary at this point; and to the extent that "story-driven" means a predetermined set of scenes it's pretty closely related to "railroady".

      A mission-statement (possibly with PCs as members of some organization) is fine and likely necessary for non-dungeon based stuff like superheroes or spies, etc. Playing factions against each other as a possible strategy, loosely presented and open to lots of player & DM improvisation, is delightful (and a core part of almost any Gygax module, like B2, D1-3, or T1-4).

      But when someone pre-scripts the exact series of things that will happen in a climactic scene, and forces PCs into only one permitted course of action, that really does rub me the wrong way. (Examples: Module X2, Paranoia's "Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues", etc.) I think it's expected that PCs should at least conceivably have the options of combat, magic, trickery, or escape and only a subset of them should be countered at a time for some fairly concrete reason. When a writer takes away every single one these, all at the same time (as Greenwood does with the adventure above) in order to channel PCs into a single course of action and a predetermined end scene, that sets off alarm bells for me. Players (including me) will become bored and restless if they don't have real choices to make and likely rebel as a result.