Designer’s Notes: Exploring the Lost City


By Chris Doyle

I consider February 2, 1981 as the date I started playing roleplaying games. That is the day when I came home from school and sitting on the dining room table was the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules boxed set, obtained from Sears via mail order. This was the set graced with purplish-hued Erol Otus cover art of an underground scene depicting a fighter and a magic-user (before we called them wizards) in a desperate struggle against a draconic creature emerging from a pool. As I type this, I glance upon a vinyl print of the artwork hanging on my basement wall, which I picked up at a Gary Con auction a few years back. I’m lucky enough to have tracked down Mr. Otus to have him sign it. How do I remember that particular date, so clearly? It just so happens to be the day my niece was born.

Back then, I was only a player. And did we play. At recess during school, after school, on the weekends, on summer vacation. We had raided the Caves of Chaos, found the ruined halls of Quasqueton, battled the Slavelords, and explored the Palace of the Silver Princess. It was late 1982, or maybe early 1983 when a good friend of mine (also named Chris) offered to DM B4: The Lost City. I was a huge fan of Egyptian mythology, pyramids, dusty trap-filled tombs, giant scorpions, sandy wastes, you name it. So even though we could not find any other players, we played anyway, and I ran all 4 PCs!

After getting stuck in a sandstorm, we sought shelter in the ruins of a city revealed from the storm. Soon, we were trudging down a dusty corridor searching for traps. We battled some fire beetles, a flock of stirges in a concealed room, and a gang of sprites (in the desert?) with a proclivity for pyrotechnics. That encounter should have been a clue to things to come, but the fey were soon defeated and we had a few crates of fireworks now.

Then we came to a door. As per standard operating procedures, we listened at the door and heard strange idle chatter, but not in any recognizable humanoid tongue (they must be gnolls! None of us speak that tongue!). We then searched for traps. Finding none, we kicked in the door and encountered five mask-clad humans, armed and armored. I grabbed my lucky six-sided die and chucked it for initiative. (Yes kids, back in the 80’s we used a six sider for initiative and rolled once for the whole party. And rolled each round of combat!) I rolled terribly, and the opposition didn’t so they acted first. The DM rolled 2d6 (why?) and then instead of attacking, the humans greeted us with open arms! What? They didn’t attack? D&D was all about exploring dungeons, kicking monster butt, and taking their loot. It never crossed my mind that we could talk to inhabitants of the dungeon (keep in mind, I’m 12 years old).

So, we talked (and glossed over the fact that they spoke in their own language which we could not understand). It was awkward at first, like talking to a girl for the first time alone. We traded some fireworks for food and water (we were lost in the desert without many supplies, after all) and eventually learned they were part of a Brotherhood. They asked us to join, so we did, not really knowing what else to do. Besides we really needed to rest at this point and there is safety in numbers. We met their leader and soon were outfitted with masks of our own. We spent most of the rest of the session (a few hours) just talking, mostly about an underground city and where to get more food and water. I’m not even sure what we discussed to be honest. But it was soon time for dinner (and homework!), so we had to end the session.

Despite my pleas the next few days, we never did finish our adventures exploring The Lost City. As it turns out, the DM was not overly fond of the talking and much preferred chucking dice during combat. Within a few months, he wasn’t even playing D&D anymore, and I’m fairly certain he didn’t serve as the DM again. A big part of the reason was his discovery of sports, and he was truly a gifted athlete, regardless of the sport. We were still good friends, but when we hung out it was just to play football or stickball. I had to find others to share my enjoyment of roleplaying games. And I did just that.

After tracking down a copy of B4 at a local Toys-R-Us, I read it cover to cover and was fascinated by the factions, the backstory of the lost city and the Cynidicean people clearly in decline. It was the revelation I needed to understand that D&D was a blank canvas and there was the potential to “role” play and not just “roll” play. Soon after I was buying modules whenever I could scrounge up the money or convince the folks I really needed this book. (It’s a book, I want to read! That’s a good thing!) And then I became a Dungeon Master so I could be in charge of the stories I wanted to tell. Sure, in the beginning, much of it was still about poking things with a 10-foot pole, kicking in doors, and rollicking combats with evil foes. But it was all part of the process. As a DM, eventually I grew as an arbiter of the rules, and as a “role” player, although I still relied on off-the-shelf published adventures.

By the mid-80’s the fad of D&D was dying down in my area. But I kept playing, bouncing from group to group. The local 4H even had a D&D club for a while, including a sleep-over D&D camp where I became introduced to organized and tournament play. By the late 80’s I was designing my own adventures and attending game conventions. This was when I was introduced to the Role Playing Gamer Association (the RPGA) and began to play in regional and national tournaments. At some of these events (especially the Master and Grandmaster sanctioned events) it was not uncommon to spend an entire session roleplaying and never removing your dice from your pouch.

So, it is with great fondness that I look back on my brief adventures in B4: The Lost City. Even though I thought I was exploring the pyramid of The Lost City, I was really exploring the many layers of the roleplaying game genre. And although I never finished the journey to Zargon’s lair, or the cavern below the pyramid, B4 was clearly the start of my journey as a Dungeon Master, eventually an adventure designer, and then a published author. It’s ironic that Tom Moldvay was the primary author of the Basic set that I started my journey, as he was the author of B4: The Lost City. It’s also ironic that the D&D brand has outlasted both Toys-R-Us and (soon to be) Sears!

And although the world and I lost my dear friend, DM Chris, way too early at the age of 23 due to a battle with leukemia, I’ll never forget that after school D&D session of B4: The Lost City. Or that perfect over-the-shoulder touchdown pass during flag football that sealed a win.

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Author: jmcdevitt

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