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.

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