Wednesday, April 27, 2011
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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