Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Journey To The Creamy Vanilla Center of the Oerth, Part 2

Welcome back to my surely misguided and possibly doomed attempt to actually read a published module all the way through.

Ok, so this is section 2, the one where they try to describe the City of Greyhawk outside the dungeon and throw in some subplots.

The Trying To Describe Greyhawk part is the usual corporate disaster. Familiar sins committed in spades include:

-Spending a very long time turgidly describing standard tropes anyone who would ever want to play D&D knows about already in paragraph form

-Having a far-too-generous definition of what counts as "information".

-Handing the job to the graphic design team at 4am after they just stumbled out of rehab. There are, for instance, two whole investigation subplots described completely backwards--clues before premise, with "see page EndOfThis25PageSection" on every single clue before you find out what mystery it's a clue to.

Granted, it's not easy to make something interesting to read on the first run through on the subway ride home while simultaneously making it work as a quick-reference at the table later, but it's even harder to manage to do neither thing. A rare feat.

Let me take my own medicine here and describe the subplots up front:

The First Subplot

...kicks off with an encounter which is also the whole adventure's intro scene, namely you are walking down the road when you come upon some people being killed by orcs.

Nothing wrong with a classic.

Details here include:

-There are bad guys (Iuz's forces under Vayne if you're keeping score) in the dungeon--these orcs are General Shermanning supplies in the area for the bad guys by attacking caravans. The raiding parties can be tracked back to the dungeon easily.

-When the players arrive, the orcs aren't conducting the actual raid, they're killing civilian witnesses to it. This is a good idea (remember, I'm putting all the good ideas in big print) because it establishes the orcs are definitely bad and killworthy, it prevents the PCs from just helping them with their caravan raid and moving on, it gives a reason why they'd be taking so long (in case the players waste time on the road), it establishes that what the orcs are doing is meant to be secret, it explains why nobody else has handled this already despite it being a recurring thing and gives PCs information nobody else is privy to.

-The orcs themselves are profoundly inauspicious: not only is the main orc basically a Nazghul--yes, already--6th level fireballing wizard encrusted with magic items riding a wyvern, but every single subordinate orc has a +1 magic axe and 2 cure moderate wounds potions.

Hey WOTC, you know a way to make this encounter challenging and complex without making the players expect to see the Blizzard logo pop up every 3 seconds? You have that loooooong "tactics" section (When the PCs arrive, Ulgrek casts protection from arrows upon his mount (and, if time permits, upon himself), then uses glitterdust against any PCs who have not yet closed for melee. Then he takes to the air on his wyvern. His mount uses Flyby Attack to strike with his talons, hoping to snatch and sting an opponent...and then 3 more paragraphs) how about this tactic instead: have the orcs hole up in a house and take hostages.

-These raids happen periodically, especially to this one overland shipping company (their cart's labelled, of course). Investigation will reveal one of the employees in that shipping company is secretly part of the bad guy Iuz cult (this investigation is subplot #1).

 -Non-useless-civilian NPCs here include the grateful bar guy (Damaris) whose bar the module heavily hints you're going to want to hang out in and a cleric whose job is to give with the healing and tell you about...

The Other Subplot

...the traveling funeral of an important Greyhawk guy is coming to the city of Greyhawk and it's a big deal.

Another cleric NPC will later tell you that...

-There was an attempt to desecrate the funeral bier with acid

-There were shards of blue glass found near the scene of the crime

...this actual intro to the acid part of the subplot seems clumsily done and Cleric #2 is put in a place where the PCs might never run into her (a shame considering how many column inches are involved). A better idea would be to hand it directly to the NPC cleric in the first encounter.

About These Subplots

-They aren't much more than standard-issue themselves, but both investigations have interesting twists.

-Both eventually lead to members of the cult of Iuz. The acid was thrown by some crazy zealot.

-The caravan subplot is complicated when two independently contact the PCs to get information for their investigations about the caravan raid. The second one is legit and offers a reward, but the first one to contact the PCs is just a Thieves' Guild member pretending to be a lawman and trying to use the PCs as bird-dogs and swipe the reward. Not only is this nicely Chinatown, it gives the PCs an opportunity to accidentally piss off the thieves guild if nothing else.

-The acid subplot is twisted in two ways: first, the blue glass, when traced to its source, reveals 3 customer/suspects, all three of whom are interesting and one of whom is a plausibly dangerous red herring. Second, the actual culprit, a crazy cultist, is also, due to family ties, somewhat a made man under a boss who doesn't really like him and will agree to let the PCs fuck him up for a decent bribe.


Now, let's take a look at the rest of Chapter One...

The days of the week in Greyhawk are given: Moonsday, Godsday, Waterday… they are stupid.

The months of the year are given too: Sunsebb, Fireseek, Readying…they are also stupid.

They sound like they were invented by someone who writes romance novels about their mystical yoni flower and smells like a bulgar wheat infection. I hate you, Greyhawk weeks and months.

There's also some Gygaxian Weather Info (it rains a lot) with a lot of rolling which could easily have been done as one chart or d100 table but, hey, fuck customers.

DAMARIS, as noted earlier, is a guy who owns a bar. His other deals are:

-He wants his Chaos Blade back--he lost it in the raid. Without it, he has to make due with only a +2 longsword. Cry me a fucking river.

-He is really nice to the party since they saved his life and invites him to not only stay at his bar for free for a month but they get to sit at the big kids' table with him and meet all the local NPCs as they stop in.

-Gets re-described several times because I guess two hundred and twenty two pages would just not be long enough. Yeah, triangular scar, got it.


...is called the Green Dragon Inn and has an impeccable Gygaxian pedigree.

...is still secretly part-owned by Robilar the fighter and there are clues to this in the names of the food if you want to get all thirty-threads-deep-into-Dragonsfoot about it, though why anyone would care is as yet obscure.

...has its (many) employees described for no earthly reason:

Gulthen (bartender, evening): A friendly, bald man with muscular forearms, Gulthen (N male human expert 2) serves his customers with an open ear and generous pours for good tippers. Once he has developed a bond with a PC, he sees it as his duty to point out attractive members of the opposite sex and “tough customers" who shouldn’t be trifled with.
Yes and the bar is the mottled brown color characteristic of horizontal wooden surfaces that have had decades worth of liquid-filled cylindrical containers put on them and the sky is up and the ground is down and the clouds occupy a place in the sky above the tavern but beneath the sun and sometimes water falls out of them and flies are small and bees are weak and kings wear crowns and life is long and pie is round and orchestras have pits and so do peaches and the number nine is not the same as the number nineteen and the word weevil stars with "W". Fuck.
...according to an entire half page, follows the completely expected schedule of a bar. There's a chart afterward in case you missed it. I ask you: if there even are people who need to be told (twice) that bars are kinda quiet at lunch but start to fill up at night is it even ethical to create products that encourage them to stay inside more?

...has some encounters that all suck:

Some clerics show up and remind players that clergy members in groups continue fulfill their longstanding niche as society's most boring element.

Tenser (of Floating Disk fame) who shows up, acts cryptic with a chess piece, and leaves

Cops who show up looking for someone who isn't there

Rich students who show up, act obnoxious, then get killed or saved by the PCs, no-one cares which.

96 more of these and you might have a random table that might be worth a toss.

...has the following patrons:
-The hero Robilar in disguise. And even though his alter ego Bilarro (yes, we see what you did there) is the same gender and size as him, he's not just disguised but Hat of Disguised (because why not make it stupid?).
-A sexy thieves guild enforcer. Her totally uninspired schtick is finding independent thieves and offering them a join-or-die deal.
-A guy who is described as looking just like Dr Strange, plays dragonchess (like chess, but with way more pieces and resolved with skill checks) and will invite you into the local unscrupulous-treasure-hunter-guild if you impress him. Casts a sleep spell like effect on all those who read about him.
-A hot slutty gypsy. And why is this young stereotype about to get the oversized oh-wait-this-is-interesting letters? Because her husband is the boss man from the acid subplot and she's got three of his toughs spying on her all the time. So that's fun.

-A guy named Trolgar they tell you nothing about but, seriously. what PC would go within 20 feet of a guy named 'Trolgar'?



...is a city watch station. No kidding! In case you couldn't tell by the words "City Watch Station" at the top of the entry it also says "These criminals 
and dangerous drunks wait
 not for another cold drink, but 
instead for processing and a
 damp gaol cell, for the building 
is no taphouse."

...has, as prisoners, a(nother) crazy religious zealot who keeps asking the PCs why they haven't jumped on the plot railroad yet and two thieves: the first one offers the PCs a reward for getting the other to reveal the location of a magic ring, the other loudly and publicly offers the PCs a reward to kill the other one in his cell.



...sells almost any potion and spies for the wizard guild. So avoiding him altogether will neatly allow you to be neither a hopeless munchkin nor railroaded. Yay.

...offers cash for rare mushrooms from the dungeon. This might qualify as a good idea if he weren't otherwise so boring.

...and can tell you who the three blue glass suspects are in the acid mystery.



They want to have an open martial arts contest and use the winner to help kill Robilar who they blame for some bullshit.

"Hey you guys, let's put karate monks in it!" Sure. Fuck it. And then the next comment said "Hey let's put it a caveman priest with a lasergun!" and the next one said "You sir have won the internets!!!" and then they realized that, no, they weren't in a chat room this was actually going to print and their old girlfriend called who majored in creative writing with them at Chicago and she was like "So how's the game design thing going? I remembered what you were saying about how it was a form with a lot of potential that hadn't been exploited yet and you wanted to push the envelope and how you were excited to capture a kind of pulpy poetry in working in a sort of pop-mythic mode and..." and then they just grabbed the toaster and looked for an extension cord long enough to reach the bathroom…

It's not just vanilla--it's vanilla with rice on top.



Oh and there's a haunted house.



Hey a weird taxidermist. I'm gonna give it that big text because taxidermy is an interesting job in a world with carrion crawlers in it and because he's one of the blue glass acid mystery suspect so the PCs get to meet him and then go "Oh he's harmless, he just bought acid to dissolve the organs of dead animals".



Unlike Ravenloft there's no special mechanic, she just casts Augury. I suppose the job's easier when you set up shop in a railroad town.

The bright blue awning of this two-story building stands out among the staid storefronts along the north side of Cargo Street. The cavernous showroom within contains a dizzying array of products from markets across the Flanaess, all offered at reasonable prices. Whether you’re gearing up for an expedition to the steepest region of the Cairn Hills, buying a few last-minute items before setting sail on a deep sea merchant vessel, or simply picking up some nails for a casual home improvement project, Geeridan’s has what you need. The weapons and armor section—highly picked over by the district’s adventurers—leaves something to be desired, but the stock of standard gear makes this one of the most popular general stores in the city, and certainly in the River Quarter.
Aren't you so glad they didn't just write a little arrow with "item shop" on the map?
Oh and the boss spies for one of the guilds. 
Exactly like the Green Dragon only with Gypsies. 
This is where the perpetrator of the acid fraud and his grudging, cuckolded protector hang out.

With its green continual flame torches and firebeetle ichor-infused sign, Nulligan’s Trove is… a big comfy-magic JK Rowling yawn.

There's a stupid ring (its main power is to make the dungeon easier) with a good element here: the ring's the only means to open one of the hidden vaults in the dungeon.


This is the dipshit who plays chess all day and belongs to a secret society. He has a tower.


Where Clerics take care of homeless people.

There is a side quest involving a "A broken, utterly destitute middle-aged human woman, her face cracked with windburn and clearly the victim of too many tears". Her husband was an adventurer, finding the corpse of her husband--whose wedding band matches hers--deep within the dungeon...


 "...gives her closure and allows her to accept what is ultimately a fulfilling life with the brothers of the River Quarter Mission."



Cult's all gotta all be in one place, right? Otherwise no set piece encounter and we wouldn't want that.



Geld is an unscrupulous dealer of maps. He belongs to a secret society . 



Big vault/mayor's office/city watch HQ, a stalwart symbol of a game designer's total lack of interest in how any of these kinds of buildings and institutions could be used in a fantasy role-playing  game.


The author of the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng heartily approves of this menagerie, though it could have a certain mystery-killing: Look, ma, a displacer beast! quality to it.
The good plot hook is Lord Henway offers money for monsters brought back alive from anywhere (transporting creatures alive is always funtimes) (However, on account of how easily this could become dull if the monsters are handled wrong and the fact that Expedition does nothing to prevent it, I'm gonna count this and the taxidermist as half an idea each.)

The bad plot hook is Henway's specifically interested in having his Aurumvorax back. Really? Really dude? The six-legged wolverine-latin student joke-hybrid?

Still: a decent fixer upper, and infinitely more interesting than…



Did I say JK Rowling earlier? I'm saying it again. These are the kind of wizards who all have Infinite Spell Component Pouches and pseudodragon familiars and blintzes every thursday and no idea what it's like to commute to an honest day's work up hill both ways with only Affect Normal Fires and a dart you aren't even proficient with.



It sure is a market! 6 column inches.


Clerics. In a building.



Let's skip over how anthropologically bizarre it is to have a god of magic in a setting where magic is either god-magic or not-god-magic and just get to the plot hook: the cleric here who starts the whole Acid Quest is actually a secretly evil pawn of one of the factions in the dungeon. She also tells the PCs about some other also-evil people she wants knocked off in the dungeon. Fair enough.

If the PCs actually knew she was evil or had to make some difficult choices in order to help her fuck with her various evil rivals it might count as interesting, but as it is it mostly just feels like the whole various-evil-factions-competing structure is just a way to railroad the party toward accomplishable goals against actually evil bad guys while still reserving more and greater badness for later in the plot via Xanatos Gambit.

So personally I'd make it obvious from early on that she's no angel.



This is where the whole coach-house-employee-is-an-Iuz-cultist thing pays off.



Dude sells swords.

It's noted that he wants that one cool sword the bartender guy lost. I guess that's kind of a plot hook but it's pretty limp, really. People generally want magic swords.



Like the High Market only with jugglers.




One of the mercenaries is an innocent-but-uncooperative suspect in the blue-glass acid mystery thing but didn't do it. Having a dangerous hired gun be one of the suspects is (as noted) not bad, but why not have the PCs have to track him down when he's out on a mission? Or in the dungeon? Or tangling with one of the other NPCs? Or captured by one of the other NPCs? Or...anywhere but in a giant fortified dorm?



Not terribly exciting but they'll pay you and be in your debt if you solve this whole "missing cargo thing".


...and that's it.  Ok, so the score for chapter one is:

Pages: 26
Words: 21,964
Good ideas: 9


What does any of this have to do with Castle Greyhawk? Fuck if I know. I suppose we'll find out next time in Chapter Two: Castle and Dungeons



  1. I suspect your way of summarising it actually made the adventure more interesting.

  2. And that's really sad because even your attempt to distill the interesting parts out is just killing me, and you're only half way through. Save yourself! Turn back now!

  3. Which books do you find actually useful, or at least possessing more good ideas per thousand words? I am always leery of buying supplements and the like for reasons you outline in this post, though I am exceedingly happy with my copy of Vornheim.

    1. Most are discussed in this blog, click the "plugs" or "reviews" or "books" tag to see some of them.

    2. ...that would actually make quite a bit of sense. Thank you kindly.

  4. Maybe I missed something, but what is a bar owner doing with so many magic swords in the first place?

    1. He is actually a former adventurer. What an awesome idea ! *yawn*

      @Zak : Very funny review. Thank you for suffering so much in order to entertain us.

  5. The 2nd Edition version is way better. It doesn't try to create a story.

    There's a dungeon. Here's 2-3 sentences of what monsters are at this number/letter. Oh, and every level is detailed in full. The 3rd Edition version omits most of original maps, using only ones that are part of their plot, and provides "example" map areas to use if the players go off the plot railroad.

    Oh, and don't waste any money buying "Castle Zagyg" products, Gygax's final attempt at doing the original ur-dungeon. The first book is just a thin re-creation of Greyhawk in a generic form, and the Upper Works box set details the upper towers only, no dungeons. Not worth the $400 it's going for on eBay.

    1. You already plugged the 2nd ed version on the last blog entry and I already said it was terrible, but I'll repeat what I said there for the benefit of anybody reading:

      Here's an example of one of the _shorter_ room descirptions from the 2e version:

      P225. Three pillars support this room next to a three tiered altar. Carved upon the grey altar is the golden image of a spindle with three strands of thread coming from it.
      This is a simple altar and has no powers. How- ever, it is watched over by Istus and thus any acts here will likely be known to her. Her avatar or servants may appear if she feels it necessary.
      As Zagig became more concerned about his aging body, his own fate and destiny gripped his mind. Coupled with his over unquenchable thirst for power, he eventually turned to the goddess Istus for direction. He constructed this section of the dungeon in her honor, at the same time his “madness” emerged.
      If this is "short-and-to-the-point" by you, you're on a lot of drugs.

  6. Hmm, I always thought the Dragonchess wizard was a reference to Kelek, the evil sorcerer action figure from time immemorial. Which for me added a whole lot to his personality based on his wars with Buck Rogers, micronauts and Raiden (the shogun warrior version, not Mortal Combat), however YMMV in this.