Design Q >> What Makes a "Classic" Adventure

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Design Q >> What Makes a "Classic" Adventure

Post by ynnen »

To get some discussion started in this forum, I'd love to hear from fans and my fellow writers on what different factors go into making an adventure feel "Classic" ?

What are the themes, elements, design decisions, encounters and other things evoke a feel of the great adventures of yore? What stirs feelings akin to those felt when reading Tomb of Horrors or Palace of the Silver Princess? What quickens the pulse like Against the Giants or Isle of Dread?

From the opposite point of view, are there any elements that flat out break the classic feel?
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Post by Napftor »

My gut reaction is that "classic" modules have the following...

1) Nasty traps--you answered that riddle incorrectly? A beam of ebony power shoots from the ceiling and disintegrates one of your limbs!
2) Oddball rooms (not all, just a couple of rooms per dungeon)--like reverse gravity areas, statues made of hair, or wooden supports running up to a ceiling you cannot see while barely visible forms that are transfixed to the posts moan in endless agony.
3) One-dimensional NPCS--"Hi, I have scars and hang out at the tavern. If I don't start a bar fight with you this time, rest assured I'll see you next module. What do I do the rest of time? Um, er..."
4) Monsters in rooms just waiting around to be killed--I picture an orc looking at a clock and saying, "If that adventuring party doesn't get here soon, I'm just going to go to that hairdresser appointment early." Well, maybe not quite that but you get the picture. :)
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Post by Jengenritz »

I never actually played any of the "classic" modules, although I read several of them as a kid ("Temple of the Frog" from the old Blackmoor book was my fave) thanks to a great-uncle who loved the game.

When I started writing for Joseph, I was coming off of years of playing White Wolf's World of Darkness (pre-reboot), so it took me a bit to understand the "classic D&D" feel, but it finally came to me with one phrase:

"An octopus in a cave."

That phrase was part of an encounter my great-uncle told me about a long time ago, and since he was my "classic D&D" touchstone, I pondered the octopus in the cave.

Why is there an octopus there? It doesn't matter! You're here to kill it and take its loot!
Why does the octopus have loot? It doesn't matter! Take it!
How did a saltwater octopus end up in a lake cave beneath Doomspire Mountain? It doesn't matter! It's going to eat your face off!
What does it live on? What are its motivations? Is it lonely? Is it a monster because it thinks it has to be, or is it a monster because it truly is one?

I don't necessarily agree with the prevailing opinion that the "classic" modules were actually all that GOOD (blasphemy, I know), but I do think they were FUN.
That's also why I think the DCC line works as well as it is both good and fun.
There's still an octopus in the cave, but it's got a reason to be there now; it makes sense in context. The octopus may not have a complicated agenda or experience existential angst, but that's really for the best, 'cause all it really wants is to crack your plate-mail shell to get at the tasty PC-bits inside.

(So in the end, when I was working on Castle Whiterock, I put something much like an octopus in a cave. If you pick it up some day, you'll probably spot the encounter...and if you get wiped out, now you'll know it's my great-uncle's fault.)
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Post by GnomeBoy »

Jengenritz wrote:I don't necessarily agree with the prevailing opinion that the "classic" modules were actually all that GOOD (blasphemy, I know), but I do think they were FUN.
I know exactly what you're saying, but I don't think I'd go so far as to say they aren't good.

What they lacked in logic, they more than made up for in imagination and just plain weirdness.

White Plume Mountain is one of my favorites. It is basically a shopping list of monsters from old Universal Pictures movies:

Vampire = Dracula
Golem Trap = Frankenstein's Monster
Invisible Stalker = Invisible Man
Giant Crab = Giant Ants / Giant Creature of the Month
Werewolf = The Wolf Man

But almost every room in the thing is memorable for one reason or another.

Who's going to forget a river that is floating three feet off the ground? WHY is it floating? I still don't know, and I've played through the module two or three times between the late-70's and early-90's and run it twice in the past 24 months. But it makes for a fun encounter when you're shooting the rapids in the thing and emerge into a room full of brigands!

Classic for me means walking into a room and finding something you'd never expect to see in a million years.
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Post by Harley Stroh »

That is one of the nice things of the "classic" adventures ... they didn't explain the magic. It was a mystery. No one knew how to make cloaks of elvenkind, we just knew they rocked.

Yes, too often "it's magic" is used as a cop out, but I love the instances when "it's magic" can still invoke a sense of awe and wonder --- outside of the expected rules.

In Halls of the Minotaur there is a dagger that ignores non-magical armor. (Over-powered? Maybe. Broken? Maybe, but it is only a dagger after all.) But regardless, it is a magic item that makes a jaded player sit up and pay attention. That "wow" moment is something we should look to evoke with every magic item. Impossible, sure, but an admirable goal nonetheless.

And yeah, I love White Plume Mountain for all the reasons Gnomeboy lists.

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Post by Harley Stroh »

Jengenritz wrote:There's still an octopus in the cave, but it's got a reason to be there now; it makes sense in context.
Adrian is absolutely right. Few modern players would believe Caves of Chaos with all those monsters packed in so tight. Or rather, they'd play it, and enjoy it, because it was the Caves of Chaos by the Gary Gygax, but if Mike or I tried to pass it off we would get crucified.

Today's players - rightly - expect logical, realistic encounters.

However, and this is a big caveat, I don't think it is our job to provide "real" encounters. Instead it is our job to provide just enough detail to suspend the illusion of realism.

As a player, I want to believe that this world could exist. But as a GM, I know that a "realistic" medieval world means that the bulk of the population dies really, really young. Do my realism-hungry players really want me to roll a d20 to determine if their PCs survive scarlet fever at the age of 4? Or starvation from the potato famine at age 9? Of course not --- they're playing the game to be heroes. But they also want to experience an internally consistent, internally logical world.

That world is an illusion, of course, but that’s what the game is about. People contributing to a collective, group illusion.

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Post by Rick Maffei »

Some things that make an adventure feel “classic” for me:

Encounter-based adventuring.
The dungeon map (“dungeon” here can refer to a stronghold, caves, what-have-you) is very important to the adventure, and to how the GM runs it. Most encounters are static, i.e., creatures tend to stay in their respective areas (possible defensive measures aside), waiting for the adventurers to come to them. The adventure is more encounter-driven than event-driven.

A clear sense of the dungeon is essential. The infamous Tomb of Horrors set the tone immediately (“One wrong move and we’re dead, gentlemen!”) as do other beloved classics. Whether the PCs are adventuring aboard a buried spaceship, lost tomb, big city, fey forest, or enemy castle, it’s important the players have a good feel for the place right away. The PCs/players need not know all the secrets or mysteries involved, but the general nature of the dungeon and the mission should quickly become clear. Dungeons with distinctive levels and/or clearly escalating challenges are extra fun.

Traps and secret doors.
These are must-haves.

Memorable set pieces.
Encounters that make you sit up and take notice, as GnomeBoy mentions. The giant grab in White Plume Mountain. The “terrible golem” in the Maure Castle dungeons. Silussa and Belgos’ lair near the Vault of the Drow. The stirring, shadow-covered form in the Black Cyst beneath the forgotten temple of Tharizdun. The **SPOILER ALERT** reborn king in the barbarian tomb (DCC# 17). These are the encounters players remember for years, and they define “classic” for me.

A light suspension of realism.
Harley and Jen hit the nail on the head here. Any casual student of history knows that the medieval-type world we envision when playing—long lifespans, sanitary conditions (a sewer beneath every city!), the mix of weapons from different times and real world places, etc.—doesn’t gibe with reality, but, if it’s kept consistent, we approve. Any caver can tell you that most real world caves are narrow, but we accept the prolific, spacious caverns of fantasy because it is a minor leap to make. We can live with slight oddities such as ogres keeping sacks of gold (where/how do they spend it?) so long as the basic rules (“ogres are generally evil and dumb”) are followed.
I have no trouble watching Star Trek and believing in that universe, but if Kirk and company suddenly beam down without bothering to step into the transporter, that violates my sense of rules—one doesn’t like to see the law laid down and then picked up again. It might seem odd speaking of realism in a game named after giant, flying, flame-breathing lizards, but some rules are mandatory. Classic adventures aren’t afraid to bend them wisely. The DCC line does an excellent job of mixing that old-school feel with a bit more realism suitable to modern gamers, such as less-crowded dungeons, more realistic ecologies, etc.

An emphasis on action.
Combat and action should not be infrequent. There’s a difference between this and the mindless “hack-n-slash” adventure, it should be noted. Classic-style adventuring involves purpose and thought, yet the players still get into the action quickly. To paraphrase a quote commonly (but wrongly) attributed to Marie Antoinette, “Let them roll dice!” ;)

These are a few things that spring to mind, personal preferences only! :D
DCC #26 The Scaly God
DCC #60 Thrones of Punjar
Monstercology: Orcs
Age of Cthulhu 2: Madness in London Town
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Post by Mike_Ferguson »

Really, really good stuff here. I think that perhaps the most important thing to note here is that while we all share similar ideas as to what makes a "classic", there's no set formula for doing so. It's not like throwing elements A, B, C, and D into a module guarantees that you have a classic - rather, they're markers on a road map that help you find your way towards something good.

As for my own ideas of what makes a classic adventure ...

1. Opportunities to let individual characters shine. It's cool when the group of characters defeat the enemies in a module, but it can become even more memorable when an individual character gets to step into the spotlight and save the day. A good module doesn't guarantee that this will happen, of course - at the end of the day, it should be up to the individual players to step up and shine - but a good module should provide plenty of opportunities for this to happen. In D&D parlance, this means dangerous villains for fighters to fight (or unholy ones for the paladins), threats for the rangers to track, traps and treasure for the rogues to find and loot, powerful magics that only wizards and sorcerers can understand and wield ... in essence, creating moments for your heroes to actually be heroes.

2. Memorable storylines and encounters. Not every single encounter in a module is going to be a doozy. But there should be enough wild ones in a given classic to kick things up a notch (to paraphrase the noted philosopher Emeril Lagasse). If you're writing a module featuring a goblin tribe, just filling room after room in a dungeon with goblins gets boring fast. But make one of these rooms a lava pit filled with narrow, winding stone paths ... and filled with goblins riding dire bats ... well, now we're on our way to something memorable. The final battle with Acererak in Tomb of Horrors? Encountering Strahd in the original Ravenloft? Meeting Rathugalon in the Scaly God? Those are the encounters your players might be talking about for *years* to come.

3. Fantastic elements, or something your players have never seen before. This was covered by a few other authors above, but it's worth repeating - a classic features something that your characters have likely never faced before, and don't have a ready-made response as to how to deal with it. This can range from the outright strange (the floating river in White Plume Mountain) to the odd and interesting (the wicker men in Secret of the Stonearm). Fantastic elements bring a sense of uncertainty and wonder to a group, even one that's jaded, experienced, and knows every rule in the book. I think this has to be mixed in nowadays with a healthy dose of realism - the insane dungeon ecologies of the infamous Caves of Chaos from "Keep on the Borderlands" just don't work anymore - but mixing a good blend of fantastic with real-world logic can create the same effect.

4. Taking advantage of the rules. By this, I mean setting up encounters that deal with infrequently used rules - a grease-covered floor does wonders for villains with Improved Bull Rush, or a room with a ceiling that keeps dropping, forcing characters to take damage or fight from a prone position. Just skimming occassionally through the rules, it's easy to find a rule that doesn't get used often ... and with a little work, you can turn that rule into a memorable encounter.
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Post by Mike_Ferguson »

Jengenritz wrote:"An octopus in a cave."
Heh. There's a homage to that in "Devil in the Mists" as well. :twisted:
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