Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ellen Page Ranked

Post updated here.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Why Dark Tower is My Favorite Module

There's something extraordinarily primal about Dark Tower. You have a cursed village, dominated by an evil cult, its inhabitants never aging, hardly able to recall a time of law and good. Two buried towers, barely poking above the ruined countryside, its ancient powers locked in stalemate. An underground network connecting the towers, every other room a death zone. It haunts my imagination like no other module, and is the best dungeon crawl ever designed.

It doesn't hurt that it relies on my favorite pantheon of the Egyptians. (My lawful-good leaning PCs worshiped Egyptian deities; my chaotic-good characters bowed to the Norse.) Here the opposing gods are Mitra and Set, and the history bears repeating. During his mortal life (around 1500 years ago), Mitra was a paladin who opposed the serpent-demon Set. Both were killed in the battle between their followers, and both ascended to godhood. A thousand years later (500 years ago), Set finally enacted his revenge on the village of Mitra's Fist by creating a dark tower to oppose the white sanctuary. On a starless night the tower suddenly appeared out of nowhere and crushed half the village. Few reached the safety of Mitra's tower, and most of the village was wiped out.

New settlers came to Mitra's Fist, naturally hoping to find buried treasure. But their greed awakened the evil of Set's buried tower, and for the last three centuries the village has been dominated:
"It took a hundred years of digging before searchers found the location of the original village. However, they encountered the unexpected. Something was digging up to meet them. News eventually stopped coming from the village. Mitra's Fist had changed almost overnight. Some force had possessed the village and its occupants, causing them to slay children, non-humans and Mitraic priests in one night of hell possessed fury. It is these very same villagers who have inhabited the old decaying buildings of Mitra's Fist for three hundred years since, never aging. For three centuries the village of Mitra's Fist has existed, unmolested by the outside world. Few have noticed that the village has had the same occupants for over ten generations. Few have noticed because few are those who can visit the village and not fall prey to the sharp, ceremonial dagger of the high priest of Set."
That powerful set up takes the long defeat theme of The Village of Hommlet (evil is cyclical, it can never be truly defeated, it will keep coming back) and meshes it with the steady creep of chaos in The Keep on the Borderlands (lonely isolated outposts fending off evil forces), but with a threat worse than either. This is a close-quartered clash of good and evil, in an underground of sadism and sacrifice. Enemies lie only rooms away, and the cold war has been festering for bloody centuries. The villagers above are cursed by immortality and unable to leave the mountain pass, dominated by the Set cult. Avvakris the Merchant (actually the high priest of Set) is one of the most memorable villains from any module, his son a half-reptilian, and his concubine a ravishing beauty who can either be found making love to him or as a half-eaten corpse with her heart removed.

The architectures are genius. Jennell Jaquays is famous for her non-linear dungeons and confusing environments in which no two groups of PCs can possibly have the same experience going through (note that the credits refer to Paul Jaquays, the name she used at that time in her career). They can retreat, circle around, bypass underneath, go back over old ground, or even use teleporting short cuts that appear without rhyme or reason. The dungeon is nested between the two towers via equally contorted passages. The rough path is a descent of Mitra's Tower followed by a climb up Set's, with a lot of unavoidable dungeon mess in between.

Dark Tower is cherished even by today's players, and that surprises me a bit. The design is uncompromisingly old school: The clash of good and evil is primitive, and the forces of light don't always come across as benign. Mitra may be lawful good, but he speaks the language of war. His "lions" (saints) don't suffer fools gladly, and their holy relics are as likely to rape and possess you (even rob you of intelligence or leave you insane) in order to bring down Set's minions. The module is also light on plot, and equally tailored for evil-aligned PCs. There are rules provided for the bonuses received by clerics of both Mitra and Set when they enter the dungeon areas or tower under control of their deity. Needless to say, the scenes of blood sacrifice and mutilations are alien to the sissified elements that overtook the game by around the mid-'80s.

I suspect the module is widely loved because it's so archetypal. Villagers hunker down in oppressed, cursed isolation, whilst hideous rites are conducted beneath their homes. It's as haunting as D&D settings get, and I already mentioned the long defeat theme. Even assuming the PCs succeed in killing Pnessutt the lich, the liberation isn't a happy one: the villagers die (their bodies fast-forwarding 300 years of borrowed time), and neither tower is completely destroyed by the underground cave-in. The final sentence points to a future replay: "Considering the history of the dungeon, it probably won't be long before the digging starts again..."

What can I say? Dark Tower is my favorite module for every obvious reason.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why Inferno is My Favorite Module

Inferno is my ultimate gaming fantasy come true. But it's an anomaly in this six-part series, because it's a half module that was never finished. It's being finished now, however, in a delayed-blast profusion of modules and gazetteers. The first four circles comprised the classic module (1980), the fifth and sixth circles were published six years ago in Fight On, issue #3, and a gazetteer of the seventh-ninth circles was released just three months ago. There are more gazetteers of the upper circles and modules of the lower ones on the way. For sake of simplicity, I will refer to this vast body of work as the Inferno Project. Though the recent publications aren't written for 1st edition D&D (for copyright reasons), they are entirely in the old-school vein and designed by the same genius, Geoff Dale.

As I said, the Inferno Project is my dream come true, and it's a dream that began with Ed Greenwood's famous Dragon articles in 1983. I always loved The Divine Comedy, and Greenwood's Nine Hells took at least some inspiration from that epic. He gave us the wastelands of Avernus with atmospheric fireballs; the emerald clouds and stagnant rivers of Dis; the foul marshes of Minauros, plastered with rotting carrion, pelted by rain and hail; the volcanoes and lava rivers of Phlegethos; the swamp of Stygia, with surrounding mountains flashing their white "cold fires"; the black, smoke-filled layers of Malbolge and Maladomini; the glaciers and outer-space cold of Caina; and the misty realm of Nessus, where the very ground scorches those of non lawful-evil alignment. I wanted a module for all of this -- for the most epic outer-plane adventure imaginable. Little did I know that such already existed! Inferno had been published three years before, and even more incredibly was based exactly on Dante. But it was one of those obscure Judges Guild modules, not TSR, which my local stores didn't carry. It would be years before I became aware of Dale's version of Hell.

I should stress that I still admire Greenwood's version. But Dale's is superior -- more imposing, and far more weird. In depicting the torture of souls, he produced a medieval canvass completely aligned with a literary classic. Some object to the Christian baggage, but that really isn't an obstacle; those elements have been tweaked for D&D's pagan context.

In fact, the Christian layovers are some of Inferno's best parts. My favorite encounter area in the history of D&D moduledom is the Noble Castle on the First Circle. It isn't a place of torment, rather a state of shadowy bliss for "virtuous atheists" who had the simple misfortune of existing in a time long past: "They are the just and good peoples from the Days Before the Gods and live in relative bliss and comfort." That's a brilliant translation of Dante's Limbo, which is the resting place for the virtuous unbaptized; i.e. those whose only sin was not knowing Christ, such as righteous Old Testament figures who predated Christ, and noble pagans from any time. There's something grievously upsetting about this pocket paradise stranded in an ashen wasteland, with its gardens, trees, clean water, benign wildlife, even music, and the benign hospitable souls (including paladins) forced to dwell here for eternity. They're content for the most part, yet aware their fate is somehow blighted. Above all, the Noble Castle underscores how weird the Inferno is, unpredictable and unfair. In the official rules, good souls could count on eternal rest in an upper plane befitting their alignment (the Seven Heavens, Twin Paradises, Elysium, etc). Dale's template of the afterlife is much less secure, and seems premised on the idea that souls can be kidnapped and confined where they don't really belong.

On the circles below the first, souls are tortured for whatever deadly sin they committed in life, and the juiciest punishment by far is the second bolgia of the Eighth Circle. As in Dante's poem, these are the flatterers, who live in a pit of shit since that's all they spoke in mortal life:
"A noxious mix of sewage, offal, and other liquid filth fills the pit to a height of seven feet, and clouds of buzzing insects (flesh flies, poison gnats, giant mosquitoes) swarm above the liquid. Mortals swimming across the filth contract 1d3 disease each from the contact. Determine diseases from 1d12: (1) dengue fever, (2) tuberculosis, (3) diptheria, (4) tetanus, (5) malaria, (6) elephantitus, (7) yellow fever, (8) dysentery, (9) smallpox, (10) typhoid fever, (11) tapeworms, (12) bubonic plague; see Codicil of Maladies for details. An encounter occurs to mortals swimming the muck... (1) mud snakes, (2) giant slugs, (3) giant leeches, (4) type 8A devils. Mortals flying above the muck are attacked by type 8A devils."
The Inferno Project owes to Dante also in terms of the tour-guide approach. Duke rulers like Plutus (Fourth Circle) can be receptive enough to show PCs around torture pits where souls labor in degrading tasks, and answer questions provided they have the proper passes and behave themselves. These civilized devils are also leering sorts who will as likely attempt to rape female PCs before murdering them -- a typical reminder of how faithful modules were to gritty pulp fantasy before D&D became so sissified. Some of the most vile and deadly magic items (often cursed) can be found throughout the Inferno, as well as hidden talismans that can be used against the devils.

But it's the Dantean landscapes that mesmerize: the River Archeron, the Styx River, the City of the Heretics, the River of Boiling Blood, the Wood of the Suicides, the Desert of Fire (a smoldering 125 degrees), and, especially at bottom, the Frozen Swamp of Cocytus. The Ninth Circle encases all breeds of traitors and backbiters, is a constant 15 degrees, has winds blowing up to 80 miles/hr, blinding fog and roiling thunder that makes normal speech impossible. Lucifer is confined at the pit's center, and he's a piece of work at 750 feet tall -- and unfortunately the only ticket out of Hell.

On the one hand, I think it's unfortunate that Dale's vision of Hell didn't become official. It became an obscurity I wouldn't even learn about until the days of internet. But then it's probably just as well. Not only did Inferno remain a half-finished product, it was too offbeat and worrying for many gamers. I consider it a superior alternative to the Greenwood template and am so glad to see the project nearing completion. It's my wet dream of Dante's hell-hole made real. If I could run only one more campaign in my entire life, it would involve every damned circle of the Inferno.

Next and final: Dark Tower.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Why Vault of the Drow is My Favorite Module

If Tomb of Horrors is the most punishing D&D module, and The Lost City the most inspired, and Castle Amber the most rewarding, what is Vault of the Drow? Without doubt, it's the most brilliantly conceived. Many grognards call it the best thing Gary Gygax ever designed, and in hindsight it's obvious why. But back in the day it wasn't esteemed so highly. Certainly gamers I knew didn't think much of it; it was almost a non-event.

I think there are two reasons for this, the first being Vault of the Drow's problematic relationship to the modules which surround it in a series. D3 falls in the worst possible place, penultimately trailing five dungeon crawls: the giants of G1-G3, the caverns of D1, and the kuo-toan shrine of D2. By the time players hit D3 they're itching to get to the final module set on the Abyss (Q1), to which the Vault effectively serves as a mere doorstop. The second reason feeds into the first. The Vault is an underground realm, not a dungeon crawl, and with enough care can be mostly sidestepped by PCs not interested in lingering. Which is a shame, because the city of Erelhei-Cinlu resounds with opportunity.

The problem is that I was blind to this, not only because I couldn't read a map properly, but because I and my players couldn't wait to get to the Abyss for the showdown with Lolth. Which is, of course, its own problem.

As widely acknowledged today (with some embarrassment), Queen of the Demonweb Pits is an abominable module. Not only is the design a joke (resembling nothing horrifying like you'd imagine the Abyss to be -- even involving, yes, a goddamn spaceship as the spider-queen's lair), but there is simply no reason, per the plot design of G1-D3, for players to take the suicidal step of confronting Lolth on the Abyss. Lolth and her priesthood have been all along opposing the renegade drow attempt to invade the surface world. The goddess isn't the problem; her wayward servant in the Vault is. Q1 is a complete non-sequitur, and only makes sense if the PCs are overambitious hotheads or fools, or if they just want the orgasmic thrill of trying to kill a deity on her home plane. (Which of course is what we all wanted.) It's unclear what kind of module Q1 would have been had Gary Gygax not bailed on the project and left it in the hands of David Sutherland, but it's one of the greatest old-school ironies that a masterpiece like Vault of the Drow was overshadowed by a poorly designed follow-up that made absolutely no sense.

The Vault is best used as either the final module in Gygax's G1-D3 series, or (as I prefer) a complete stand-alone. If I had respected the thing and gotten proper play out of it, I have no doubts it would be my favorite sandbox, eclipsing even The Lost City. The descriptive writing of the underworld is mind-blowing. Here's what greets the PCs upon entrance:
"The Vault is a strange anomaly, a hemispherical cyst in the crust of the earth, a huge domed fault over 6 miles long and nearly as broad. The dome overhead is a hundred feet high at the walls, arching to several thousand feet height in the center. The radiation from certain unique minerals gives the visual effect of a starry heaven... These 'star' nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large 'moon' of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres. The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more like mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland."
DMs who know what they're doing (as I clearly didn't back in the day) can serve up a nightmare world where factions of dark elves plot against each other, demons and undead walk the streets, and obscene sacrifices are offered to Lolth, all under that purple glow of phosphorescent fungi and bizarre "moon". There are torture parlors, bordellos, drug saloons, and avenues where the undead feast openly, but here's the thing: everything is disturbingly civilized. And gorgeous.

It's worth nothing that Dragon Magazine #298 fleshed out the Vault, especially the city of Erelhei-Cinlu (see right), as well as the sadistic culture of the drow. Their bloodsports entertainment is downright obscene, involving bound captives held beneath magic acid that drips onto the forehead, opening up a hole in the victim's skull and melting the brain: "During this time, orbs of telepathic power communicate the dying victim's memories to the salivating crowd. Attendees vicariously savor the captive's most traumatic and painful experiences as he slowly succumbs." There is also the matriarchal sexism, which allows females to fuck whomever they please, while husbands must remain faithful and are usually sacrificed if caught cheating. On the other hand, if a powerful priestess makes advances on another woman's husband, she can have him sacrificed for daring to spurn her advances. Attractive males often face these no-win situations and disfigure themselves to stay alive. As for whore houses, there are many, but the Alabaster Slab is the most degenerate, and one I'd be sure to patronize if I had a PC with nihilistic inclinations: a brothel of the dead, run by a demonic madame who provides the "darkest sort of oblivion" to clients.

The drow are D&D's most iconic race, and it's an outrage that they were later bastardized. Gone (by the mid-'80s) were the deprave sadists, and in their place a Disneyfied race of dark elves -- those poor misunderstood anti-heroes of a dawning political correctness. Gary Gygax had created a genetically evil race without apology, and his are the only drow I acknowledge. I was glad to see Dragon #298 do likewise, and honor the Vault with new surprises. In my teen years I grasped none of the Vault's potential, but in fact it has more potential than any other module. That's why it's my favorite.

Next up: Inferno.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Why Castle Amber is My Favorite Module

It's impossible for me to discuss Castle Amber apart from my experience of it. I remember thirty-two years ago like it was yesterday. My best friend was the DM and in top form, putting me and three other players though a truly demented campaign. It was weird from the first room, but we knew we were in a loony universe when we ran afoul the ogre dressed in a nightgown who thought it was Janet Amber (whom it killed), and got increasingly homicidal the more compassionate we were. My friend's impersonation of the ogre and falsettos added up to some of the best DM role-playing he'd ever done; we felt like we were really in that castle.

Castle Amber is like something out of David Lynch: it has a fever-dream feel to it, and off-kilter encounters like the aforementioned ogre. The cover art of the Colossus epitomizes this theme, a staggering piece by Erol Otus which in my opinion is his best work ever. Those huge eyes still freak me out, and I remember them raising terrifying expectations. Our PCs were the recommended intermediate (3rd-6th) levels, yet we had this to look forward to? A fortress-sized 100 HD creature with 350 bloody hit points? The build-up to this encounter is fantastic, not least because the Colossus isn't even the focus of the adventure. It's just one of many nightmares to face in order to escape the insane world of the Ambers.

The Amber family is critical to the module's success, and I found their callous amorality far more chilling than straightforward evil foes. Moldvay describes them thus:
"The personalities of the lost Amber family set the mood for the adventure. The Ambers range from slightly eccentric to completely insane. For the most part, the family is [chaotic evil]. While they are proud of their name, they seldom cooperate with each other. Most of them believe they can do anything once they set their mind to it. They live magically lengthened lives, but they have seen too much and are bored. They seek anything to relieve this boredom... It amuses them to watch adventurers battle obstacles, and they are equally amused whether the adventurers succeed or fail. A good spectacle is more important to them than defeating the adventurers. The Ambers tend to be fair, out of the belief that a rigged game is too predictable and not much fun."
For the first time I realized the extent to which character and role-playing defined a good D&D game, and how a trait like boredom, of all things, could produce not only deadly results, but dangerously unpredictable ones.

The Ambers are as colorful as they are dangerous. There's the librarian Charles who buried his sister Madeline alive; the soul of Princess Catherine lurking inside a throne, waiting to possess someone (see upper left); the evil priest Simon, who feigns friendship and kills at first opportunity; Madam Camilla, itching to tell fortunes you'd rather not hear; Andrew-David the man-goat, who patrols the indoor forest with a Wild Hunt of dire wolves and sabre-tooth tigers; and many others. They exist in a cursed eternity, confined to their castle like incestuous wraiths.

But Castle Amber is a masterpiece even aside from all this demented creativity. It packs so much in short space -- well beyond what most 36-page modules offered back in the day. First there is the castle itself, with two large wings, an indoor forest, and a chapel, and not a room wasted (see above). Second is a dungeon, with hideous creatures like a brain collector, and potions that induce harrowing dreams that intrude on reality. The dungeon ends at a magical gateway to, third, Averoigne, the old home of the Ambers -- an alternate prime material world resembling medieval France, and where magic is a heresy punished by death. Here the PCs must acquire a number of artifacts (one of which can be obtained only by killing the 100-HD Colossus which is in the process of demolishing a town; another of which is an honest-to-gods potion of time travel) in order to return to, fourth, the tomb of Stephen Amber, which contains the means to break the castle's curse.

Incredibly, this module is scorned by today's D&D players. As far as I'm concerned, they're more insane than the Ambers; as always, the new school has it wrong. They want "realistic" modules, and this classic is surrealistic in the extreme. Castle Amber is gonzo pulp fantasy gone wild. And it offers more warped fun, and with such effortless economy, than any other module I know. That's why it's my favorite.

Next up: Vault of the Drow.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why The Lost City is My Favorite Module

If you asked me to name the D&D module that most fired my imagination, that I obsessed like no other, that inspired me to keep building on its foundations, my reply is immediate: The Lost City. I spent countless after-school hours pouring over this thing. It got into my head like a cerebral tapeworm. Meals went untasted as I stayed in my bedroom designing new areas, expanding the underground, and giving the bottom pyramid tiers a complete overhaul. I took the world to bed at nights, dreaming of an ancient civilization fallen from glory, and whose descendents tripped through life half-baked on acid and in thrall to a Cthulhu-like deity monster. It suggested stories of lost culture, and hopeless struggles for restoration. I wanted to go there; that's the kind of grip it had on me.

That it's a beginner's module makes it all the more impressive. It's hard to come up with top-notch low-level adventures, but The Lost City is so inspired that I never resented the fact that the underground leaves plenty for the DM to develop. In essence, I see the module as epitomizing the Golden Age of D&D (1977-83). It's pulp fantasy at its purest, with homages to the Conan classic Red Nails, and a world unto itself. A perfect sandbox you can use over again with new plots.

The rooms inside the five-tiered pyramid are filled with a variety of nasties: killer slime, geckos, oil beetles, rolling boulder traps, pendulum blades, a banshee, and a wight who is the transformed corpse of the ancient Cynidicean Queen Zenobia (see left). For PCs who advance to high levels, five lower tiers are provided, the bottom being the lair of Zargon (see bottom left). But it's the Cynidiceans themselves who define The Lost City. Their lives are a year-round carnival -- mushroom farming by day, hallucinogenic partying by night -- and this is how Tom Moldvay describes them:
"Every Cynidicean wears a stylized mask, usually of an animal or human face. Some are made of wood, some of paper mache, and some of metal. They are decorated with beads, bones, feathers, and jewels. Most wear fancy clothes, flashy jewelry, and carry short swords. Some paint their bodies with bright colors. The Cynidiceans are a dying race. Each new generation is smaller than the last. Most of them have forgotten that an outside world exists, living most of their lives in weird dreams. The times when they seem normal, tending their fields and animals, are becoming fewer and fewer as the dreams replace reality. Their unusual costumes and masks only strengthen their dreams."
Against this decadence, however, stand three renegade factions, the few "normal" Cynidiceans attempting to restore worship of the old gods: the Brotherhood of Gorm, the Magi of Usamigaras, and the Warrior-Maidens of Madarua. They're dedicated to overthrowing the Zargonites in their own way, as they distrust each other, and are certainly not above using PCs as pawns in their covert agendas. It all depends on how the PCs interact with them. This makes for a wonderfully unpredictable dynamic, and it's noteworthy that Moldvay emphasized this -- with a stern reminder for DMs to expect the unexpected from their players:
"The bickering between the three factions, and their attempts to restore sanity to Cynidicean society, give the DM the chance to add character interaction to the adventure. While the factions can be played as simple monsters with treasure, the DM and players can have a lot of fun with the plots and feuding of the factions. If this is done, the DM should plan in advance what the faction members may say or do if the party tries to talk, attack, or wait to see what the NPCs do first. It is important for the DM to avoid forcing the action to a pre-set conclusion -- the actions of the players must be able to make a difference."
Such advice, of course, was boilerplate wisdom in the old school and hardly needed spelling out. That Moldvay saw the need to do so in 1982 indicates what was slowly creeping into the game, and would become the new fad a year and a half later. Prior to the Dragonlance craze of 1984, railroading (i.e. pre-packaged plotting) was anathema in D&D. The Golden Age was one of open-ended sandboxes (i.e. locales/settings), which left plotting to the DM, but also to the players, with the result that stories grew spontaneously in game play. The Lost City is one of the best examples of this classic approach, and completely unlike today's adventure-path designs that predestine players' "choices".

You can have a lot of fun with the city, and one group of PCs I ran got terrific use out of the cache of fireworks. No self-respecting role players pass up the opportunity to explode skyrockets, and in this case, they were used quite dramatically in the underworld after defeating the Zargonites... to signal a new era with a glorious holiday.

No module has galvanized me like The Lost City, and that's why it's my favorite.

Next up: Castle Amber.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Why Tomb of Horrors is My Favorite Module

To call Tomb of Horrors a "favorite" seems absurd on the face of it. It's certainly the most famous and notorious module, but it's impossibly unfair, and if you play it honestly you won't be playing for long. Gary Gygax only designed it to shut up complainers that D&D was getting too easy. He may have gone overboard by way of response, but it turned out to be just what the game needed in 1978. The tomb made an impact not only as a dungeon, but by the mentality it fostered. It's my favorite module because it's the most reliable gauge of one's affinities for the old-school. In effect, its a Platonic ideal. All killer dungeons walked in its shadow, unable to repeat the artistically perfect nihilism. The more we hated it, the more we loved it. Today's generation will never understand why.

One thing I need to clear up, however, is Gary Gygax's disingenuous preface. He states that this is a "thinking person's module" -- in other words, one that challenges player skill more than character ability. In theory this is true, but in practice it's obviously bullshit. No one beats the tomb, no matter how smart they are; everyone dies, usually in the first few rooms. Player skill is as meaningless as character level when you're talking about instant death with no saving throws every step of the way, and the only means of sidestepping annihilation are non-sequiturs. The demi-lich is an instant soul-stealer, and can only be harmed by things you'd never dream of trying: expensive gems thrown by a thief; a low-level shatter spell (go figure); a power word kill, but only if thrown by an astral or ethereal spellcaster; etc. It's as if Gygax was playing Russian Roulette with the Player's Handbook, and pulling random spells and gimmicks from his ass to serve as get-out-of-hell free cards.

One of my favorite encounter areas are the killer doors that gush blood:
"The doors are 14' wide and 28' tall, made of solid mithril, 3' thick, and impregnated with great magicks in order to make them absolutely spell and magic proof. Where the halves meet, at about waist height, is a cup-like depression, a hemispherical concavity, with a central hole. The latter appears to be the keyhole for the second key, but if this is inserted, the character so doing will receive 1-10 points of electrical damage, while the first key will cause double that amount of damage to any so foolish as to insert it. The real key to these gates is the scepter from the throne room behind. If the scepter's gold ball is inserted into the depression, the mithril valves will swing silently open. But if the scepter's silver sphere is touched to the hemispherical cup the holder of the instrument will be teleported instantly and spat out at the devil's mouth at 6. [the tomb's entrance], nude, while all his or her non-living materials go to 33. [the demi-lich's crypt], and the scepter flashes back to the throne."
Then come the gallons of cascading blood -- keep in mind that Gygax wrote this before Stanley Kubrick's The Shining -- if the doors are cut by a sharp weapon. It's the blood of all victims who have died in the tomb, and once again, you'd never guess what it takes to stop it from drowning everyone: a levitate spell coagulates the blood (but turns it into a massive ochre jelly) a purify water turns it to gas (but unfortunately poisonous), raise dead or resurrection destroys it (this solution being one of the few without any lethal side effects), etc.

I don't believe for a moment that any group of players ever honestly beat this module (a) on first entry, knowing nothing about the tomb's design in advance, and/or (b) without the DM toning at least parts of it way down. It's just not possible. But that's the point. The tomb gave DMs a license to be punishing off the scales, and players the okay to be masochistically thrilled by impossible challenges. It brought nihilism to the game, and while I doubt I knew the word as a young teen, the concept was slowly dawning on me. In some ways Tomb of Horrors messed with my psyche like The Exorcist (I was exposed to both around the same time). It disturbed and upset me, but rooted me in a framework that took fantasy very seriously. Thanks to it I would become receptive to important ideas (like the long defeat in Tolkien) and the amoral heroism of tomb robbing.

And even if it can't be called a "thinking person's module" without winking too broadly, the principle is there, and was soon applied to modules that gave players an actual chance; Ghost Tower of Inverness and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun to name a couple. It also goes without saying that you can tone down the module, which some DMs did, though that rather defeats the purpose. The unforgiving nature of the tomb is its point. Grognards thrill to it the same way videogamers thrive on those high levels they can never win. Today's D&D crowd is another story; for them it's too cruel. But if it's cruel it also repays strategic planning -- and knowing when the hell to run. You could possibly stand a slim chance of beating this thing with enough retreats and follow-up expeditions.

Tomb of Horrors torpedoed my sensibilities like no other gaming product, and I rose from the ash anew. It taught me there were no limits to punishment, and that nihilism has its place in fantasy. It changed my view of gaming, even my view of life. That's why it's my favorite module.

Next up: The Lost City.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Favorite D&D Modules Unranked

When I ranked the 40 classic D&D modules, it got tough around the top. On most of my lists, two titles at most compete for the top slot. For instance, The Lord of the Rings is my favorite novel, but so is Shogun. The Lord of the Rings is also my favorite film(s), but honestly, so is The Exorcist.

In the case of D&D modules, however, there are not two but six that tie as #1 favorites. This is how I officially ranked them:

1. Tomb of Horrors
2. The Lost City
3. Castle Amber
4. Vault of the Drow
5. Inferno
6. Dark Tower

I'm happy enough with that ranking. Forced to choose, I go with Tomb of Horrors, and the others descend accordingly. But truthfully I can make a case for any one of them at the top slot. And that's exactly what I'm going to do. Each day starting tomorrow I'm going to explain why each module is my personal favorite of all time.

First up: Tomb of Horrors.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Chronicles of Narnia, Ranked

Post updated here.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Ten Movie Scenes That Really Scared Me

Here's my top-10 countdown of movie scenes that scared the be-Jesus out of me -- that made my hair stand on end, my heart stop, my body sweat and shake. Most are from horror films, though not all. There's a plane crash and underground cave-in that terrify me as much as the foulest demons from hell. There's even a scene from a fantasy film.

You can watch them all at once, or individually by clicking on the links below the playlist.

(10) Final Scene. The Grudge, 2004. For a PG-13 film The Grudge is pulverizing. I sat in my theater seat literally cowering with fear. There are many scenes I could choose from, but by the final one I'd reached the point that if the damn movie didn't end, I'd become a gibbering lunatic.

(9) Plane Crash. Flight, 2012. This futile attempt of a pilot to stop his plane from crashing paralyzed me. But then I have a massive fear of heights.

(8) Gollumized Bilbo. The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001. Hobbits may come as a surprise on a list like this, but Bilbo's sudden demonic transformation near gave me a heart attack when I first saw it. It comes out of nowhere (it's not from the book) and is still a terrifying moment after so many viewings.

(7) "Get out!" The Amityville Horror, 1979. This is the scariest haunted house scene I'm aware of.

(6) Confession. The Exorcist III: Legion, 1990. The true sequel to The Exorcist is underrated and has more genuinely frightening scenes than most horror films. This scene in the confessional booth gave me nightmares.

(5) "What cards am I holding?" The Evil Dead, 1981. Horror films like The Evil Dead -- and scenes like this in particular -- aren't made anymore. I mean seriously, this is appallingly low budget, yet more terrifying than any demon movie I've seen since it was made.

(4) Cave in. The Descent, 2006. I always knew I was claustrophobic, but this film brought home just how much. I get so terrified watching this scene that my palms sweat, my heart races, and I stop breathing.

(3) Bob. Fire Walk With Me, 1992. The scenes of "Bob" in Laura Palmer's bedroom add up to the most brutal psychological horror in cinematic history.

(2) "Come play with us, Danny." The Shining, 1980. The Overlook's darling twins need no explanation. I cursed Kubrick for a long time for messing me up with this scene.

(1) "The sow is mine." The Exorcist, 1973. What scene can I possibly choose from the grand-beast of horror films? The one in which the sow is claimed, marking the point of no return.