Thursday 22 September 2016

[BLOG] Expedition to the ruins of my first adventure module

This is kind of special. The Ruined City was not the first adventure I ever tried to write, but coming after a series of half-baked attempts, it was the first coherent one that survived from my first AD&D campaign. Before, there were the beginnings of a sewer system under a ruined desert city (populated by swamp monsters because we had no money to buy the actual Monstrous Compendium, but had an issue of a game magazine which had swamp monsters in it); an attempt at recreating my favourite gamebook, Deathtrap Dungeon (all I remember was the players killing each others’ characters to avoid having to share the prize money); and something about a giant mountain-sized bird used to scare the party into a railroaded adventure. The Ruined City, though, was the rare adventure I actually wrote down in detail, and managed to preserve in a paper folder. Looking back, it is fascinating, dysfunctional, sometimes surprisingly clever, and occasionally fucked up. Let’s delve into it.

The Ruins
The year was 1993 and RPGs were right before the point where they’d briefly become very popular, then crash back into reality. But before the publication of M.A.G.U.S., which would become Hungary’s most popular RPG (and as it’d turn out, the only one of note), everyone was still playing 2nd edition AD&D, very often taking the form of a photocopied mess of unofficial translations and bolted-on extras. Now, 2nd edition never properly taught DMs how to actually design an adventure in a step-by-step way; which meant most of us picked up the absolute basics by playing in others’ games first, studying the one or two available modules we could lay our hands on, then a lot of trial and error. These are the roots The Ruined City comes from.

It is a bold vision: a nameless Roman-style city buried underground by some immense catastrophe (shades of Pompeii), found in a vast lightless cavern, its remaining sections standing on massive stone outcroppings above a bottomless (1700 m) abyss like so many islands of an archipelago, slowly crumbling away into nothingness. The two maps I still have were originally intended to represent only part of the full city, but the attention span of a 13-years-old Dungeon Master made sure they were never completed beyond these two, and the beginnings of a giant palace in section three (now doubly lost).

This is more archaeological expedition than action adventure. There are a lot of mundane details about the city, its inhabitants and the catastrophe that had wrecked it. There are interconnected clues which hint at more information, or which reveal mini-stories. There are minor treasure objects – I was notoriously, even obsessively tight-fisted with loot and magic items, even more so than the other people in town who had DMed. (The trick was to bring characters from other campaigns into mine, and gain an unfair advantage over other players, because it never occurred to me to confiscate the powerful stuff they had “earned” elsewhere.) Much of the detail is, regrettably, superficial: it is not something that can be interacted with much, and much of it isn’t very adventurous, unless you are into archaeology.

Still, there are some inventive details. There are some decent navigation-based challenges, even if many of them don’t lead anywhere special. Crumbling ledges, rope bridges, investigating a skeletal arm hanging over an abyss. There is a secret room full of gold bars in the courthouse, and a magic item that comes with a notable trade-off (the inability to lie exposes the character to significant risks in a murderhobo game, which ours definitely was). And there is, well, that statue in the temple, one of the most 14-years-old encounters you can imagine. Believe it or not, Riana became one of the PCs’ in-game girlfriend, and later died at the hands of their main nemesis, the evil wizard Malvent.

Fallen Glory
The piece d' resistance of the adventure is undoubtedly the arena on the second map sheet, an extravaganza featuring a never-ending horse race with cursed skeletal champions; the sinister scorekeeper; and multiple ways to become involved. This is a set-piece encounter I’d still be proud of creating today, and it justifies all the effort put into drawing a good arena with a compass and ruler.

If the exploration in The Ruined City is interesting but less rewarding than expected, and the rewards are relatively meagre, then most of the anaemic combat encounters betray a weak understanding of the rules. The 2nd edition rulebooks didn’t put much emphasis on using large mobs of monsters to soften up the party, nor explaining the relevance of damage output. Hence, the special skeletons which are talked up by the descriptions in the location key are actually all complete pushovers, since they either have no Hp to pose a threat to a group of adventurers, don’t do shit when it comes to damage, or both. At least the challenges get progressively stronger as you go deeper into the ruins. Which brings us to the adventure’s conclusion (not featured in the included scan).

If you notice, the skeleton-skeleton-stronger skeletons-even stronger skeletons theme is central to the adventure. The end of this would be the lich living in the ruined palace in section IV, with the understanding that the party would avoid him, and go on a few adventures right under his nose without disturbing his rest. It was not meant to be. After exploring the first section, and solving the arena encounter in the second, the characters headed right for the half-written palace ruins they’d spotted beyond the rope bridge. I tried a last ditch trick to get them to go elsewhere, making them encounter the lich on the bridge, and giving them a stern warning to scare them off. This is how it went:
“After its admonition, the hooded figure looks at you with its burning pinpoint eyes.”
“I attack him!”
“I attack him!”
“I cast magic missile to teach him a lesson!”
“He takes the damage. Next round, he wins initiative and casts lightning bolt for 10d6 damage.”
“...I surrender! I promise to serve him faithfully if he will just spare my life!”

This was completely out of left field, but an opportunity no sensible DM could miss (the alternative was killing off the entire company there and then - and I was a big softy). In a move that’d establish the tone of a long campaign that went up to level 14, the characters swore an oath to serve Eumer the lich, gaining an important, if distant patron for the rest of their adventuring careers. Those who had entered The Ruined City as its prospective plunderers, emerged changed as its agents in the word of the living.


  1. Hello! Good stuff. What is up with that censored "oh no, my god" section?

    1. It was in bad taste, and has been excised.

  2. My uneducated guess is that this section had the stone women (convenient female statues turning to living women at a whim).