Thursday, September 18, 2014

Secret of the Silver Blades: Here There Be (Weak) Dragons

The early game's major fixed encounter is to free the Well of Knowledge from this dragon.

I never played much tabletop D&D, but I did go through a period in which I liked to buy and read D&D modules. In retrospect, I suppose it was kind of sad--a lonely child poring over game instructions that he had neither the time nor friends to play. But to me, reading them was almost as good as playing.

It's been years since I even looked at one, and I don't remember a lot of specific names. I know they varied a lot in quality. The ones I like best had mazes of lettered or numbered rooms. Each room had an accompanying descriptive paragraph (which the DM would read, I guess) and then a longer detailed explanation of the room's creatures, encounters, and items. You'd find out things that players would have to figure out on their own: that the orc party in the room is terrified of the undead in the nearby graveyard, and will flee at the nearest "boo"; that the djinni lies with everything he says; that the fountain is holy water rather than regular water; that the room is full of trap doors leading to spiked pits. I liked to imagine how I'd play out the encounters if I didn't know these things ahead of time.

I probably fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the modules I was reading. I tended to think of each area as a completely compartmentalized encounter. I suspect now that a good DM wouldn't play it that way; that the goblin squad in Room 13 wouldn't just sit there as they heard the party prying up floorboards in Room 12. A realistic dungeon is a living, interconnected dungeon. But I still liked the thought of the "dungeon" as a huge, sprawling edifice full of discrete, individual role-playing encounters.

Only a few computer RPGs have delivered this sort of experience. Most of them have dungeons that are relatively small, or bereft of meaningful encounters, or with only encounters that tie in to the main plot. Few offer the opportunity to "wander" and yet still find interesting things. The two Might & Magic games perhaps come closest in my chronology so far, but the dungeons are overly predictable in their rigid 16 x 16 structure, and the encounters, while extremely varied, don't have a lot of depth. Tunnels & Trolls has something of this dynamic, though again the dungeons are quite small and the encounters a little too scripted. Ultima Underworld is perhaps the best example that I can think of, though there are times when the Baldur's Gate games come close.

When I saw that Secret of the Silver Blades offered an extremely large, irregular set of ruins, I originally had high hopes that it would offer this kind of dungeon-crawling experience. I hoped that amid the long corridors leading to nowhere, there would be a handful of rooms in which I encountered original NPCs, tough fixed combats, puzzles, and treasures. My hopes were boosted when, early on, I ran into a dragon guarding a few magic items. It wasn't much of an encounter--not even much of a fight--but I thought it would be the first of many to offer some break in the monotony of the drab corridors.

"Attack" or "Flee." I marvel in the quality of this role-playing choice.

Alas, having mapped an area that goes up to an x coordinate of 83 and a y coordinate of 60 (less than half used, admittedly), I can now report that in this vast area, there are exactly three fixed encounters: the dragon above, an even larger dragon guarding better treasure, and an ancient bier with some magic items (looting it got me a battle with clerics of Bane). In between are a few bland descriptions and a ton of random encounters delivering absurd piles of platinum. Disappointing.

On the plus side, I did learn a new bit of vocabulary.

The twisting corridors lead ultimately to three important areas, two of which fit into the overall ruins map while featuring their own coordinate scheme. The first is the Well of Knowledge area, and clearing it seems to be the first quest, partly because the mayor's portal leads directly there and partly because none of the other teleporters will activate until it's cleared. The Well area is basically a nexus of teleporters connecting the game's major areas, preventing the player from having to navigate miles of corridors every time he wants to get back to New Verdigris.

The other two areas are a series of mines descending into the earth and something called the "administration building" that I haven't yet explored.

Since beginning the game, the only thing I've done in relation to the main plot is to clear the Well of Knowledge area. It was swarming with Black Circle mages and Priests of Bane, both engaged in a struggle to control the area despite neither (apparently) being good. Both attacked me with abandon throughout both the Well and the ruins.
One fun role-playing choice, as priests and mages of the Black Circle charged each other. I chose to "duck," at which point the priests defeated the mages and I was able to destroy the greatly-diminished band of priests.

I was prepared to give the Black Circle a chance despite their name, at least until they started attacking me without provocation. After I cleared the Well area, the Well of Knowledge itself told me that the aim of the Black Circle is the awakening of someone called the "Dreadlord" who "sleeps within his castle, trapped within the glacier." The miners thought the Circle was helping them, but the Circle was really just trying to get the miners to blast away bits of the glacier so that they could slowly tunnel their way into the castle. The monsters attacking New Verdigris are being slowly released from the melting ice. Still no word on the Dreadlord or how the glacier formed around his castle in the first place. For that matter, still no word on what the "Silver Blades" are.

The game is a little unclear how a tube full of water is communicating with me.

I did find a letter "blowing in the wind" in the ruins (until then, I thought they were supposed to be indoors) in which another Black Circle member wrote to Marcus. The letter indicates that a "contact in Phlan" is acting as a "middleman" for their efforts and that "he has sent a clerk to take care of communications. She has no knowledge of our real intent." Can it be that I'll again see my beloved, the clerk of New Phlan?

I'm not sure where the Priests of Bane come into all of this, but they apparently held the Well of Knowledge before the Black Circle showed up. Although the Circle initially drove the priests from the Well, Bane sent an ancient red dragon to even the score. To clear the well, I ultimately had to defeat the red dragon. This was assisted greatly by a Scroll of Protection from Dragon's Breath, which an old man in town gave me after I listened to three of his stories.

So far, I've faced three fixed-encounter dragons of varying power and a bunch of small red dragons with packs of other monsters in the ruins. I continue to be disappointed in how fast the dragons die, especially now that my characters have enough hit points to easily survive one round. Even the mightiest dragons never last more than two.

These are just the cutest things. I felt bad killing them.
The bigger ones are impressive in size, but they still don't have enough hit points to be truly dangerous.

Killing the dragon "freed" the mine, and I was able to get the information about the Dreadlord in exchange for a sacrifice of gems. I thought the well would keep asking for more gems for more information, but after the one journal entry, I just get a message that the Well has nothing more to say.

How rude.

Freeing the Well also now allows me to use the teleporters scattered throughout. Apparently, I have to visit both ends first before I can use them. So far, I've found the portal back to town and two portals to areas of the ruins I have no reason to revisit.

Some miscellaneous notes:

  • Within the ruins, many wall patterns repeat themselves. For instance, the pattern below appears in three separate places.

  • I didn't find a single secret door in the ruins. Granted, I didn't test every wall. The "Search" command seemed to have no use, either. In Pool of Radiance, you needed to use it or "Look" to find special treasures in certain rooms. I don't remember it doing much in Curse of the Azure Bonds except wasting time, and that seems to be its primary function here.
  • I forgot to mention this in my first post, but the manual begins with a letter from "Rolf" to "Fafnir" indicating that Rolf has been following the party from place to place, always one step behind. You may recall that Rolf was the harbormaster's assistant who greeted the party on the docks of Phlan and gave us a little tour. I'm not sure if I'll ever see him or if the letter is just some flavor text.
  • An old man in town and the tavern have different journal entries every time you visit, but you have to completely leave New Verdigris and return for the new ones to activate.

My third visit with the old man got me a Scroll of Protection from Dragon Breath.

  • My plan to diversify my spells has been working out reasonably well. I'm getting a chance to try out some spells that I wouldn't normally bother to memorize. The only problem is that so far, the combats have been easy enough that magic hasn't really been necessary.

Where I would have tried casting "Hold" on this cleric in previous games, I'm going to try to erase his mind instead.

  • So far, my favorite combo of spells I otherwise wouldn't use is to have the mage cast "Mirror Image," then "Dimension Door" behind enemy lines and attack the back ranks with contact spells like "Burning Hands," "Shocking Grasp," and "Bestow Curse." This combo does nothing compared to a single "Magic Missile," but it's still fun.
  • Only a couple of my characters have received a level-up so far.
  • I seem to remember that in Curse, my fighter/thief could still backstab even if he was wearing heavy armor. In Secret, he can't. I was planning to leave him in leather for role-playing reasons anyway, but the rule keeps me honest. Because I had him running around in leather when the other lead characters had plate mail +2, he kept getting knocked unconscious--until I found some leather +5 and some other protective items.

I guess the bracers are superfluous now.

  • As you explore the ruins, you periodically encounter a "party of townsmen" who offer to escort you back to town. It's a good way to instantly return to safety, but how are these townsmen surviving all the minotaurs, hill giants, and gryphons?

I suspect that you really want me to escort you to town.

  • Every time I rest in the mayor's house in town, I get attacked once by Fire Knives trying to assassinate me. After I defeat them once, I can rest safely until the next time I leave New Verdigris and return. I don't really know what they're doing here. Revenge?

I guess it's time to choose the next area to explore: the mines or the "administration building." But perhaps the next thing to do for role-playing reasons is to force entry into the home of Marcus, the Black Circle mage who lives in town, and demand some answers.


  1. I think Blogger lost my comment again... I always enjoyed reading through RPG manuals and modules, looking at the art work, maps and encounters. Possibly because the AD&D games I was involved in were too heavily involved in mechanics rather than storytelling and some flexibility about the rules.

    One of my least favorite things in CRPGS are games that have large, repetitive maps with few items or encounters of interest. I always remember walking around the edges of large mountain ranges in Ultima VI looking for caves. I'd rather have smaller maps with more detail than large maps which are designed to just add to your game playing time.

    1. I didn't even get into reading the modules that much, I just pored over the base rulebooks and manuals again and again. The Monster Manuals and Dungeon Master's Guide, specifically. Thinking back now, between when the game was introduced to me at age 11 and I stopped playing at age 18 when I went to college, I probably had all of a dozen *real* sessions, with multiple people fully engaged in playing, and of those three were complete Monty Haul treasure romps (seriously, when a dwarf appears from nowhere, gives you a wand, and then teaches you how to fly, find a dragon, zap it with said want and "surf" it back to the ground as your second monster encounter ever, things are way out of line). Another three we created characters but then never even made it out of town before the thief picked a fight with a shopkeep and chaos ensued that lasted until it was time to quit.

      But the truth is arranging adventuring sessions can be *hard*, particularly as kids. Try getting six people free on the same weekend, letting them all stay over someplace for 4+ hours, which probably means all night, create characters or remember where you left off, and then stay focused between jokes and roughhousing long enough to play. Add to that the probable need for parental cooperation for transportation, and it's amazing that I've got those twelve days.

      So most of what I did was read monster descriptions and imagine what it would take to fight those creatures. How would you defeat that lich? Would you be lured in by the things that look like fake treasure chests? What if you faced an arch demon with the power to teleport and cast illusion at will - how is facing one of those even possible? After that I'd read the magic item descriptions, wondering what fantastic treasures I might find, or what cursed items might need to be avoided. How would anyone ever guess the right command word/gesture to use a wand? How does anyone ever figure out what effect a potion has without including some dramatic cheat, and why do old wizards always keep vials of poison mixed in with their healing potions? What negative side effects might be bearable to justify using a powerful artifact? I mean the perpetual acne sounds embarrassing, but I already dealt with that in real life as a teenager.

      It sounds a little lame in retrospect, but that's what made my imagination go wild. I probably should have read more modules for a sense of story-telling and better understanding of dungeon design and traps, but it never captivated me the same way.

    2. @Quirkz

      You described my early (and late) D&D experiences perfectly - lots of imagining, lots of preparation, so little payoff. In the middle though, when I was about 15-17, I had a group of friends that met every Saturday at 12 and role played more or less all afternoon and evening (with breaks for basketball). It was great - the best childhood experience imaginable, really.

    3. Dude, I STILL read AD&D modules when I'm bored.

      These comments make me feel much better about the gaming group I was able to keep together between 6th and 8th grade though.

      Back then I was bummed when the group fizzled out, but based on everyone else's experience I guess that was pretty dang common.

    4. I'd read any RPG related stuff I could get my hands on as a kid- adventures, settings, rulebooks, even when I was too young to understand the rules.

    5. From age 11 through 14 I would RPG at lunch. As Quirkz mentions, RPGing doesn't involve much RPGing per unit time. It was mostly larking around with an occasional pause for a combat round.

      The character creation process would take weeks and the adventures, such as they were, would contain three encounters and the 'decisions' would be nothing more than following the DMs unsubtle prompting.

  2. When I were a youngster I played D&D, then AD&D. Didn't get to AD&D 2nd ed. until I was almost 30. Man, I'm only 52, feel ancient. Never enjoyed modules- I always felt constrained and claustrophobic when reading them or trying to run them. I loved creating dungeons of the type you mention- a 10x10 room with 5 orcs, next to a 10x10 room with 6 'orc-eaters', next to a 10x10 room with 4 ''orc-eater' eaters'. We loved those type of dungeons until we got older, more "sophisticated".

    Feeling much better lately tho, which is good since (you may or may not remember) my wife of 12 years died back in March.

    p.s. Blogspot ate this comment FIVE TIMES in a row before finally publishing, erasing it each time. Thank goodness for ctrl-c/v.

    1. If it makes you feel better, it ate mine 3 times.

      I had a fairly long post re: the problems with NoSQL and a bit of a rant about why I feel it's lame that the IT/Web industry has accepted it so readily.

      But it was eaten by bloggers NoSql DB, and is now lost forever.

    2. That is so almost painfully ironic :) Or at least I do right now, because later I will begin to question myself to the point that I will no longer believe it is irony. Damned irony. So hard to define, use, and identify. Almost ironic how difficult.

  3. Welcome back! I agree with your assessment about the first area: it is quite bland. Very poor dungeon design. They were clearly going for something different by having a large area to explore except they failed to provide any reason to explore it. Subsequent areas of the game will get gradually better at this, but it was an un-fun way to start the game.

    Not knowing how the game was developed, there appear to be a clear separation in quality between the 16x16 maps (except perhaps the first town) and the larger ones. I wonder if perhaps the ability to have larger maps was only added late in the development cycle with less time to add flavor.

    Overall, and you do not see it yet, I think they tried to do something different with each area of the game and the "ruins" is their least successful attempt. Pity they made exploring it first.

    1. I *REALLY* wish someone from TSR would pipe in here, as I'd have to assume there are a number of stories involved with the development of this game.

      Honestly, I'm pretty sure the non 16x16 maps were an initial design requirement/objective, but that the teleporters at the Well were added later.

      Part of me really thinks that the New Vergidis ruins were designed to replace the "overland" map we have in Curse, POR and CoK. You can get to most of the major locations from those ruins, including the (rot13'd) vpr pnireaf.

      I'm of the mind that, during playtesting, they realized that the ruins were too large/difficult to navigate and that an interim solution was required.

      Since they were already using teleporter "events" to make the larger map areas, they, at a later point in the design process, decided to actually just build teleporters in the well area to tie the game together.

      In theory, the game is entirely playable without those teleporters, it's just inconvenient, and requires that you actually map the ruins. Since they knew folks might not do that, they developed the Teleporters as a "work around" for their overall design issue.

      It's entirely possible I'm wrong, but....that just seems logical.

    2. I fully intend to try to play this game without using the teleporter system. I do not know if my patience will hold, but I am hoping for a great time truly dungeon crawling.

    3. Let me know if you ever do. To be honest I do not think it will make the game more enjoyable....just more annoying ;-).

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. I can say that not using the teleporters creates a different set of circumstances. Frankly, I did not mind, since I was playing the tactical fights a bit different. By using less spells and more tactics and arrows, even random combats became more fun. Still, the teleport is handy, but I would have traded that in for a more interesting set of ruins. The mines are better with the option to talk to the monsters. I don't know why but I keep coming back to this one. I guess the setting sells, even if other things fall down.

    6. It's a decent game. My reviews of post-POR Gold Box games tend to sound a little negative, I guess, because they don't stack up to the original. But they still beat 90% of everything else out there. My top 10% is dominated by them.

    7. I have noticed that. Secret is at 50, which is at least better than half the games you will ever play or have played. We all have things the attract us to one game over another. You like Pool the best. I knew someone else who thought that Gateway to the Savage Frontier was the top gold box entry. I think the problem of Gold Box quality is that it was never one person's brain child. It was part of an established company's stable, a company which specialized in war-games, not crpgs. Before Pool, I remember playing SSI's Shiloh on the Apple. Gary Gygax never worked for SSI. Maybe that was a good thing. I do not know. But as much as I love the Gold Box series, it does not have that loving attention you see in the Ultima series. Then again, that can bring in another set of problems. So in the end, I am happy with what I have: a cool D+D adventure that I can replay by changing difficulty or playing with different sets of characters, or imposing my own rules for role-playing reasons. I do this with other Gold Box games too. If Pool of Radiance had the Paladin and Ranger classes and Dual Classing, I would probably like it as much as Secret.

    8. But... but... D&D was birthed from strategy war-games!

    9. Yes - that's very true. Perhaps I need to rethink this. Thank you.

  4. Ha, I almost have the entire library of 2nd Edition AD&D gamebooks, but none of the modules. I do enjoy reading them to this day, imagining all of the things I could have done if I had friends back in the day that would have played.

    Some of the books are better than others. My copy of the "2nd Edition, 2nd Ed." PHB was published with half the pages of one chapter omitted. Page 2, Page 3...Page 17, Page 18...

    I used to have the 3rd Edition DMG and PHB too and reading the brown soft-cover "kit" books (Book of Elves, Complete Book of Fighters, etc) for 2nd Edition gives a certain feeling of deja vu, since most of the "extra" 2nd Edition stuff got rolled into the base ruleset of 3rd or 3.5 Edition anyway.

  5. As I said in my comment that got eaten, I have a stupid amount of affection for this particular game. Not so much for its copy-protection. While it asks you for a particular word from the Adventurer's Journal every time you load it up, it will also very occasionally ask you for a word from the (separate) Rulebook, when you try to save.

    When I got the game in 1993 I didn't hold onto the rulebook for various reasons, and in 1995 when I tried to play it again I was stymied. Eventually I got the "collector's edition" with all of the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance Gold Box games, and thus a new copy of the rulebook, but man, I was an irritated teenager for a while there.

    1. Yes, the copy protection is rather annoying. I meant to comment about that.

    2. Where are you downloading these copy protected games? Everything I ever get has been cracked.

    3. I deliberately went searching around until I found a site that had non-cracked copies. I just like to make things more difficult for myself.

    4. Well OK then.

      I remember QQP was particularly clever with their copy protection. They'd let you proceed, and then fifty turns later they'd tell you they'd detected the game was cracked, and end the program right there. Of course the cracker never actually plays the game, just checks to see if the crack "worked" before shipping it. Several of their games had busted cracks, I was never able to successfully play them until the advent of widely available PDF manuals.

      That's something underrated these days - having access to all the original manuals and documentation. That makes a big difference in understanding a game.

    5. Dungeon Master had a similar protection. You could actually play the cracked version, but you died randomly or the game crashed with bombs or mysterious system errors.

      Very ingenious and surely helped with sales - DM is one of the most sold games in relation to available computers until today.

    6. Game Dev Tycoon, which came out a couple of years ago from a tiny indie studio (two guys, as I recall), had an interesting 'copy protection'. The studio released a copy of the game on torrent sites that ran fine until about halfway through, whereupon your in-game software company would suddenly start losing money on every game until a chastising popup appeared saying that video game piracy had destroyed your studio.

  6. Speaking of systems I just bought temple of elemental evil from gog for 4$ or something and I have to say that computer rolling the dice sucks when your +6 to hit bonus fighter misses from an effing bugbear (with 40+ hp) for like 4th time in a row while the said BB 1 shot wonders through the rest of your team -.-
    I seriously started to wonder how the heck did I got through the first levels alive in a P&P-game of 3,5ed.

    1. I don't know about that one, but I always had trouble that way with Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2. I finally traced the problem back to Windows' crappy "random" number generator that is really anything but. Playing it on Linux via Wine (or via the Linux build of it for NWN 1) makes the problem go away since it has access to an actually random RNG.

  7. Drab corridors you say?
    Welcome to SOTSB!!

  8. OK. Here's the thing.

    The ruins of Old Verdigris (and, later, the ice caves) are actually 16x16 dungeons. The game teleports you around and gives you fake coordinates. The whole thing is set up to create a bigger dungeon without using more memory (remember, we are in old DOS with 640K limits). If you are a true diehard, downloading the freeware app Gold Box Explorer and looking at the dungeons will confirm this. This is the same way the Asteroid Base in Buck Rogers was constructed.

    So the reason the bigger dungeons are so much more boring? All the events are taken up with teleporters, leaving only a few scattered events for flavor.

    1. See, you and others keep saying things like this and... well... I don't particularly care. It's not about the magic that lets them not use 16x16 grids, but what they do with that magic. And in this case it's not terribly much.

    2. Yeah, I don't see how the programming tricks behind the scenes really make any difference. The point is, this is the first D&D Gold Box game that had coordinates this high and maps this large. I don't see why this had to have anything to do with the scarcity (or not) of encounters.

    3. If I recall right, the connection is that the engine only supported a certain number of encounters per map and each teleporter is an encounter. To teleport the party to to a location and back again eats up two encounter slots. Additionally, if an encounter like a description of text written on a wall is in a reused area, players would see the same text written on two ostensibly different walls. As this would shatter the illusion of a larger space, the developers presumably just decided to go with blank featureless walls.

      Why is this important? I don't know. It's interesting to me to see the trade-offs designers make when dealing with the limitations of their technology.

    4. Dan, Joe, Addict, Null: Thanks for having this little conversation :) I personally think the little insight as to WHY this sort of thing happened is fascinating. Finding out that they made bigger dungeons by teleporting in a smaller dungeon... Wild. I can't even wrap my head around that since everything fits, it all maps, but it's not actually there- just jumping around inside itself.

      I love your blog, Chet. Thanks again for starting and continuing to do it!

    5. Null Null, think I said this in another post, but thank you for providing that insight.

      I've played this game since release and didn't realize that fact until you pointed it out.

      After some internet digging I confirmed that, you are indeed correct. Some perusal of the maps really illustrate this (e.g. the repeating patterns in the ruins Chet points out above.)

      I find it pretty interesting as I honestly would never had guessed that the game was constructed in that fashion.

    6. OWB: Sure, no prob. My parents wouldn't let me get a Nintendo (bad for schoolwork), but they'd buy me a game every so often, and after I fell in love with Champions of Krynn, well, the gold box is recognizable to parents in the store. Makes you realize how much effort goes into branding.

      Bottom line is I played every D&D Gold Box game multiple times, and I think the only other game I played was Dragon Wars. I had Bard's Tale but never got the save disk to work on my Apple II for some reason. So way too much of my late childhood/early adolescence was spent pondering the mysteries of why the 8th Level Fighters guarding Tyranthraxus had 87 hp, whereas the other fighters had about 6.5 per level, or why Yulash was before Zhentil Keep and Hap in the disk ordering.

      I only realized the teleporting-map thing after a discussion on the FRUA forums; before that I had simply assumed they copy-pasted.

      As for why they did it? Probably they wanted to make more of a mapping-oriented, 'real D&D' feel, as well as making bigger dungeons and hence a bigger world to explore. They wound up with bare-bones encounters, which made the game less interesting, but these are the sort of design tradeoffs that aren't really evaluable except in retrospect in many cases.

  9. @CRPGAddict,

    You're not wrong about AD&D modules being little collections of discrete encounters. Many were exactly that. Barriers would sometimes be in place to prevent encounters from leaking into each other, but these created strange little nonsensical ecosystems - the orcs in location C are separated from the orcs in location E by a deadly gelatinous cube in hallway D. The mindless gelatinous cube may prevent the orcs from banding together into a force the players could not possibly overcome, but it also raises questions about how the orcs in E get food and water in and waste out...

    This kind of encounter structure (enter a room, fight, heal up, deal with traps, loot, decide whether to adventure on, or return to town) is hinted at in many of the systems of AD&D - from the way the core classes interact, to the systems for memorizing spells.

    I would also add that just because it's crazy doesn't mean it's not fun. Think of Irenicus' dungeon in Baldur's Gate 2 or Firkraag's keep. Enter an area, fight, heal up, traps, loot, rest, repeat.

    1. Fair enough. I guess I wasn't misreading the modules after all.

    2. And it also makes some of the old D&D modules so bizarre that you can't run those with a straight face.
      Such as 'the caldwell's castle' where you have "a keep" that has goblins patrolling the corridors, wolves in in one room, right next to wolves a bunch of merchants (?), and so forth.

      But it's not like computer games aren't plagued by this as well such that one trader in BG2:throne of Bhaal "hey guy's thanks for saving me, the robbers stole everything but let me trade you these +5 weapons that the bandits didn't steal all of sudden. I also have this 10 000 gold chump change in my pockets because the bandits didn't care about that either".
      But even more annoying to me especially in Infinity engine games is that you save the world blah blha and everyone cheers you a hero but no that local priest still extorts money for healing from you.

    3. An important thing to remember is that for a large percentage of DMs, the published modules were kind of like training wheels. They'd run them when they were starting out, and later on they'd pick them up to get ideas or if they were running something special, but for extended games, most DMs design their own adventures from scratch. The module writers knew this, and also knew that the beginners would need the encounters blocked out, while a DM that was adept enough to handle a more dynamic environment would probably just use the map and rewrite the encounters themselves to suit whatever the details of the larger "campaign" they were running, making any extra work detrimental to half their market, and useless to the other half.

      Now, this doesn't cover things like the Tomb of Horrors or other one-shot modules aimed at advanced groups. Those were something else altoghter.

    4. Yeah, a lot of those weird-ass modules were designed for tournaments. Can you imagine? Playing D&D competitively, to win against other groups? Bizarre.

      And yet, for influential D&D types, this was normal. They started writing modules for themselves and their friends without any thought that little Timmy might be in the kitchen after school playing D&D with his friends. Why? Because little Timmy is 12 years old and can't exactly jaunt off to Gencon for a week and they never meet him.

    5. "Yeah, a lot of those weird-ass modules were designed for tournaments. Can you imagine? Playing D&D competitively, to win against other groups? Bizarre. "

      Seems weird now, but a very clear analog for that type of behavior would be Guilds in Wow and their competition for World/Server firsts. It's essentially the same thing.

      It's hard to understand now, but D&D was actually, technically cutting edge entertainment technology when it came out.

    6. Yes, the 'wizard funhouse' type of dungeon design. A dungeon can be said to be a weird surreal place, or it can be worldcrafted into an ecosystem with a degree of versimilitude. Gygax wrote both types of modules and it seems to me he was of a clear mind in that he was doing either one or the other.

      Funhouse dungeon modules were popular when I was young because people could trade stories about how they delt with discrete elements of the module in their groups, with other people in other groups.

      It makes perfect sense that videogames would go for funhouse dungeon stuff and not living, breathing ecosystem because the latter is very difficult to keep together and to balance.

      BTW, your initial paragraphs: you're describing exactly the preable to me becoming a dungeon master for my friends, and I expect for a lot of other DMs as well. We bought the material, fantasized how it would be to play and trained our friends to play D&D so we could use it.

    7. All these commenters are right that the old modules were carelessly organized without a shred of realism, and they were often run just the same way (especially by twelve-year-olds like Timmy, who lacked the necessary perspective).

      By contrast, the old Classic Traveller adventures (i.e. "modules", which was an idiotic name for one-shot setpieces) include some "sci-fi dungeons" that make a lot of sense as realistic ecosystems or plausible ruins. Those adventures were deliberately written so as to avoid most of the manifold failings of Gygaxian design, so they're something of a landmark in TRPG history (and still an outlier).

      @Noman: What you said (about modules as minimally-scripted guidelines) held true for good DMs, but Gygax was not one of them. He didn't believe in faking rolls or improvising or retconning; he ran his dungeons like a deist god, setting up a deterministic closed system and passively going through the encounters exactly as he'd written them. His modules weren't intended as general notes to riff from; he really was the mechanistic "roll to see if you cry" kind of DM.

      @Helm: I too was one of those gamers who originally got hooked on D&D rulebooks without having anyone else to play with (I was in elementary school). But I fixed that as soon as I could, just like you did.

      Also, roguelikes tend to be more interconnected, in spite of their D&D lineage. Monsters wander from room to room, hear assorted noises from across the level, cooperate in funny synergies (or not -- "Hmm, a roomful of mind flayers and cockatrices; time for my ring of conflict!"), etc.

  10. If you are finding the combat in Secret of the Silver Blades too easy, you can adjust the difficulty level. The setting is under ENCAMP->ALTER-LEVEL.

    1. Yeah, it gives the monsters more hit points and improves their saving throws. I always play Gold Box games on Adept level, Expert if I'm feeling cocky. Veteran is just too easy in this day and age.

    2. Secret of the Silver Blades is the first game in the series to offer a difficulty setting.

    3. Thanks for reminding me about that. I think I'll crank it to "Adept" even though the last thing I need is more experience; I'm sure I'll hit the level cap well before the end.

    4. Wait 'till you get to the optional dungeon in Pools of Darkness that's always on 'Champion.' ;)

  11. I too was a D+D orphan. Rarely I was able to play with others, but most of the time, the manuals and modules just made good reading material. Sometimes I would roll up characters and put them through a random dungeon. Of course this could lead to all sorts of bizarre things, but it was fun as in that day there were no CRPGs avaliable.

    As you talked about in game Dragon Fire, the literature itself was always inviting. The descriptions of monsters and treasure with strange words like Dwoemer and Milieu were fun to read and try to pronounce.

    The encounters rarely made sense though. Tomb of Horrors, for example, was full of traps, twisted corridors and dead ends. It seemed more a method of killing player characters than the mousoleum of a dead lich. Now they are making more of an effort at monster ecology.

    1. One of Gygax's famous quotes was that "DM's wins when players die" and his modules pretty much reflected the idea such as ToEE having a teleportation trap (no saves ...) that teleported characters to other side of the continent thus making them as good as dead but hey DM wins so who cares.

      We still play an occasional "classics night" with my troupe where we dust out the old red box and roll stats "3d6 down the line" and laugh evilly at poor sap who rolls badly on attributes.
      Consequently we also play those modules with the same 'what the hell, just roll with it' attitude.

    2. Tomb of Horrors has a pretty interesting back story.

      Essentially Gygax's players had become really comfortable and accustomed to his style of DMing and a few of them (Rob Kuntz in particular) were able to, essentially, out play him.

      Gygax created that dungeon as the ultimate challenge for those folks. As written it's essentially a TPK (total party kill.) However, his players (again, Kuntz in particular) were so accustomed to his style of design, etc that they were able to clear it, easily, in one run.

      I find it kind of funny; the creator of the game tried to create a dungeon to kill of his best players, and was unable to.

      Needless to say, thousands of other PCs have lost their life there.

    3. @ "DM's wins when players die"

      That always seemed a terrible philosophy to me. The games I played were rarely adversarial, certainly not like that. A good DM sets up challenges, of course, but I'd say the times I enjoyed most were because of good storytelling, epic achievements, or occasions where the difficult was properly posed so that the players could just barely squeak by. It seems surprising to me that this game could have been successfully founded by someone who held what in my opinion seems such a misguided idea.

      Then again, if the above stories are true and he was constantly being outwitted by his players, maybe his attempt at adversarial DMing actually resulted in the good challenge.

    4. @Quirkz: "It seems surprising to me that this game could have been successfully founded by someone who held what in my opinion seems such a misguided idea."

      Story of my life, man. D&D had a thousand such misguided ideas, which leave any thoughtful gamer gobsmacked at Gygax's shamelessness, imbecility, and undeserved success. One marvels that D&D, instead of being consigned to the trash heap of history, has instead gone from strength to strength. Its unassailable dominance among TRPGs has to be attributed to infernal intervention.

      It goes without saying that a GM can gank his players like fish in a barrel whenever he wants, but this doesn't make for a good game in any sense. You're quite right about the way it should be run. So the way that I GM is a bit like the way that Go masters play against lower-ranked opponents: they handicap themselves by trying to win by the SMALLEST margin possible (which is not at all easy). Likewise, a GM should let his players win, but he should make it as hard as possible. They'll be justifiably prouder of their accomplishments, and they'll become better gamers.

      Of course, to do this, you need to know how they think, without their predicting what you'll do (Gygax sure failed that one), and then you have to carefully figure out what's within their ability. This isn't easy, but if you can do it, you're golden.

    5. This isn't the story I heard about Tomb of Horrors at all. The one I heard was that there were a lot of Monty Hall games going on, and people would write in to TSR complaining about a lack of adventures that would challenge their uberpcs. So Gygax, figuring that they'd not'earned' their PCs wrote an adventure in which your stats didn't matter much, since there was pretty much no combat.
      Also: I've read about when Gygax would send PCs to the other side of the planet: he did it a couple of times. He viewed that as an excuse to run adventures for that player as they traveled home, not as a way of killing PCs.

    6. I think the evidence speaks favourably of what it was like to play with Gygax as DM: He was heavily in demand and his instruction manual on how to DM turned the game into a cultural phenomenon.

    7. @Canageek

      I've read similar type of explanation on original "Gods, Demigods and Heroes" supplement and Tomb of Horrors written as tournament module.

      @ Tournament gaming

      Eventhough competitive roleplaying might seem weird, it's predecessor for organized plays which especially Pathfinder thrives on - every con has at least handful of Pathfinder Society games going on. Difference is actually quite minimal, instead of rewarding good playng on some prizes your persistent character gets exp and perks to use on future organized play.

      As for competitive playing. itself, well look at eSports, but that certainly can't be credited to to neither trpg tournaments nor Gygax.

      @ "DM's wins when players die"

      I think this is somewhat out of context. You have to remember that Gygax had played wargames for years before David Arneson made first drafts of RPG rules, which Gygax modified (IIRC) and that attitude certainly showed through.

      You could roleplay pieces on chessboard all you want but the fellow on other side of the table is still out to get you, not to create compelling story.

      Frank Mentzer was guest of honor at one con I attended to some years ago, and according to his stories Gygax would certainly kill your character if you played dumb, but he would play strictly by rules, not by invoking some Uthmog Horizon-dimmener to rush down the corridor.

      But before I give too much credit on Gygax, reading his writings on early Dragon Magazines has given somehat petty image of him... in way of "You imbecile dare to give bad review to D&D?"

    8. I loved going to conventions, doing the same adventure as everyone else, then comparing notes at the pub afterwards. Ah, Living Greyhawk, how I miss you.

      Yeah, Gygax would have considered changing something on his notes to be cheating. He also scaled his dungeons per level, so you wouldn't find giant dragons on level one, and it was up to the player to choose which level they adventured on (barring chutes and other traps.) He considered killing a few PC good, but preferred to do so in a 'fair' way, since he could aways just drop a giant dragon and kill them all.

    9. @ Canageek

      My story isn't the official story at all. When you start REALLY digging into AD&D 1st edition's history and creation you see a few common threads emerge.

      1) Gygax spends a LOT of text in the DMG essentially complaining. Don't give characters too much stuff, don't let them get away with X, Y or Z. Don't this don't that. Drastic difference between this and the OD&D rules, or Basic rules, where they say "have fun, ignore the rules if you need to."

      2) These statements were made, most likely, because Gary had a few players that he appears to have had a bit of a hard time with. Because they consistently "beat" him.

      Rob Kuntz's Robilar character would walk through dungeons with magical items that rendered him both invisible, and silent. He was able to wholly avoid any random encounters, would always attack from ambush, and was easily able to bypass a majority of the challenges Gary threw at him.

      3) Kuntz, Ernie Gygax, Jim Ward and a few other players of Gygax have stated, on record, their experiences in clearing this dungeon. You can check Dragonsfoot for Rob Kuntz's recollection, but essentially Gary called him and informed him he had just completed a "killer dungeon". Specifically made for tournaments. Rob ran through it, Gary was disappointed that he made it through so easily. Anecdotes from Jim Ward and Ernie back that up as well. He hoped they'd fall there, they didn't.

      As a result, I'll still back up my statement, but it's not an official byline.

      It's more of a "I've studied this stuff extensively, and based on Gary's statements, his tone in the 1st edition DMG, and the statements of his players, it's clear to me he built this to try and kill his 'toughest' players."

    10. I think I've read something like that in some gaming magazines about Gygax's (God bless his soul) shenanigans as well (not Dungeons magazine or Dragon magazine but probably from Games Workshop or something) a long time back.

      Anyway, to a creative player, no odds are insurmountable. Even a party of level 1 characters can defeat a gigantic dragon with loads of preparation and exploitation of every single item they have & weaknesses that the monster have.

      The funny thing about the official magazines published by TSR were chock full of gaming examples specifically about such creative playing methods that actually happened in Gygax-ran tournaments.

      It's like he couldn't make up his mind if he was pissed or genuinely impressed of his players.

    11. "It's like he couldn't make up his mind if he was pissed or genuinely impressed of his players."

      To be honest I think it breaks down like this.

      He spent years of his life playing/participating in large scale wargaming. That is, ultimately, a competitive endeavor and requires some sense of competitiveness to be exciting.

      Then he "invents" this game where instead of it being a direct "me vs you" it's more of a "I enable your adventure/good times, by properly rationing out appropriate portions of frustration and success."

      My hypothesis is that his competitive nature is part of the equation here. He *wanted* to beat his players from time to time. Especially since most of his hardcore players were his kids, or people young enough to be his children.

      It does also help to understand that Gygax was, essentially, jobless when he wrote and first published D&D. That tends to lead to feelings of inadequacy. Until 78 or 79 TSR was not successful enough to be a "real" job.....I'd have to assume that was a factor....

  12. A minor spoiler, but one that bit me a bit:

    The Well of Knowledge will continue to give you answers as the game goes on, but there is no clear indication when new answers open up (they tend to be plot-related). So I know I missed certain Well-answers because I did not go back and try it frequently.

    Would it have said anything important? New journal entries? I suspect not, but if you have a desire to catch all of the answers then you will need to come back more often than I did.

    On the plus side, it gives the game a bit of extra economy because you can keep buying answers with gems until late in the game.

    1. Thanks. I actually thought to check the well again after I visited the Temple of Tyr, and I was pleased to see that it had new hints, not that I really needed any of them.

      Even with all the gems I bought to get those hints, I still have more than 100,000 platinum pieces. The economy in this game is off the rails.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. The well will give you maps to the following places if you haven't already explored the ruins and found them:

      1) The Mines
      2) The Dragon with the Amulet
      3) The Administration building

      IIRC it's 100 platinum per gem, 100 gems per hint; that's 30k in gems that *could* have been spent on the well.

      If you constantly hit the well for hints, and don't manually map the ruins, it is somewhat common to run out of platinum and gems.

      Granted...I've never had a playthrough where I had to actually liquidate jewelery in a substantive fashion, but it IS better than POR or CURSE in that regard.

      Plus, not sure if you are aware of this, but your mages can SCRIBE spells from scrolls. IIRC the scrolls for sale at the magic shop have randomized spells on them. That is a decent money scrolls until you get enough to learn every spell on every mage.

  13. One last addendum: I had a whole bunch of RPG books I never got to use, and even did the solo-dungeon generation bit in the back of the 1st ed DMG as well. The bizarre minutiae and flavor text were really quite entertaining--what's with the 'Nessus Shirt Company' on the cloak of poisonousness? (turned out to be a reference to Greek mythology)

  14. I always prefer these modest "save a city" quests to those where I have to stop someone from world domination. Of course, the former can easily turn into the latter, as we saw with Neverwinter Nights. Still, for now the main quest has something of the feeling of Pool of Radiance.

    I agree. Small plots usually work better then grandiose ones, and it avoids huge amounts of spiral in sequels. You saved the world? Now you have to um, save it again! vs the huge variety of small quests you can do. Firefly was a great example of small quests each episode. Sadly, as of late all games seem to think you need to save the world.


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