Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Re-Imagining The Slave Pits of the Undercity

[Forgive me, I am suffering from an unusual amount of Gamer ADD recently...I'll get back to my previous ADD ramblings shortly]

Recently, both Dyson of A Character for Every Game and Christopher of Grognardling have sang the praises of Joesky’s Carcosa Adventure. While I was checking it out, I noticed that Joesky also had a brilliant idea about what he wants from 5e.

Rather than wait in vain for WotC to do what so many of us want — re-release a bunch of old adventure modules — the folks of the OSR ought to release their own re-imagined versions of old favorites. Buried in the comment section, someone suggested that I do my own version of the Slave Pits. I find this a fascinating prospect (and a bit humbling at being mentioned along side some of the heavies Joesky suggests in his original post).

I have always really wanted to like A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity:
  • The concept is really awesome: there is a secret slave trade that needs to be stopped —find it and root it out!
  • I am not necessarily a big fan, but I often find Jeff Dee’s art inspiring. His cover art for A1 has always fascinated me. Why is Dread Delgath so casual about being attacked by giant ant people (aspis drones)? How cool is it that Blodgett is climbing walls in order to try and get a backstab? What is going on with the aspis in the foreground? I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out cool ways to answer these questions and still do every time I look at my copy of the module.
  • There has been a lot of chatter about female characters recently, and I would hold up Elwita the Female Dwarf Fighter (featured as one of the tournament characters at the back of A1 and throughout the art of the module) as one of the cooler (if not coolest) published female characters in the history of D&D. I know most guys will point to Morgan Ironwolf, but due to how they are depicted I must disagree. Ironically, Dee is responsible for illustrations of both. I find Dee's version of Elwita to be immensely respectful — she’s wearing real armor, she’s muscular and she’s still somehow feminine despite having a beard (she is a dwarf, after all). In contrast, I have always found Dee’s depiction of Morgan to be ridiculous — how is all that supermodel detail showing through her chain mail?
Unfortunately, I have never been able to like this module, because its warts outweigh its virtues:
  • Where and what is this undercity that you speak of?
  • If the region has been overrun by evil humanoids, why the need to hide the whole operation in an abandoned temple?
  • What are the aspis doing here in the first place?
I suppose I could overlook these things if A1 didn’t suffer overall from the fact that it is a tournament module. TSR did a very good job back in the day of making tournament module sound cool, special and superior to the crappy DYI stuff you did in your basement, but they necessarily abandoned several principles that govern normal dungeon creation:

  1. The adventure is very linear. Characters start at Room 1 and proceed from there. Yes, it is possible to go in through other entrances and yes, it is possible to role-play the discovery of the temple within the city where it can be found; however, both are seriously hampered by the fact that it makes little sense to hide the slave trade in a city that probably doesn't think twice about owning and selling slaves.
  2. The normal empty-room-to-encounter-area ratio is thrown out of whack. Tournament games are not about exploration, they are about overcoming puzzles and monsters. Therefore virtually every room has a monster, a trap or some kind of hurdle that the players must defeat.
  3. There is an emphasis on having new monsters that players are unfamiliar with, even if their presence doesn’t necessarily make sense or fit the scenario (see my question about the aspis above).
  4. The scenario is more important than its utility outside of the tournament setting. Placing A1 into an existing campaign takes more effort than simply placing it on a map.

In thinking about how I would do my own version of the Slave Pits, all of these things would need to be addressed while still paying homage to the original. Here are few preliminary thoughts:

  • First, the homage: The Temple itself will be the ruins of a church dedicated to St. Cuthbert. That will tie it into Greyhawk and also coincide nicely with my own proclivities. In addition, I might add one or more agents of the Scarlett Brotherhood (or an analog) to an encounter area or two.
  • Secondly, I am not adverse to using unfamiliar/new monsters, but I want them to make sense. As cool as they are, no aspis thank you; however, given that this particular project ostensibly is for folks who will potentially be owning their first copy of AD&D and in need of a good adventure to run, it would be fun to give them a traditional D&D monster that isn’t found in the MM. Since I’ve been fiddling with the FF, there are a couple of potential candidates that dabble in slavery. The one that appeals to me the most, because they can be understood to be an homage to HPL, are the kuo-toa.
  • Unfortunately, kuo-toa are described as creatures who live deep beneath the earth and who hate the sun. What if this particular group of kuo-toa had figured out a way to interbreed with humans so as to make living on the surface a possibility? Thus, there is a reason for the slave trade (finding suitable humans to help breed; sell the rest to interested parties such as the Brotherhood), there is a reason to keep these activities secret, and it allows for yet another new monster: the halfbreed kuo-toa who is able (at least for a time) to pass as fully human. [This concept can also be carried out using the Deep Ones and Sea Bloods from the RCC].
  • This, in turn, suggests that this secret hideout be near a body of water. I am thinking of using a map of Lindesfarne (an island off the coast of Northumerland where the real St. Cuthbert hails from) as the basis for the map of the region around the temple ruins. In addition to the temple, there will be a sleepy fishing village (of half-breeds), a castle (where some of the more vile activites of the kuo-toa occur) as well as the slave pits beneath the temple. Being on an island will also help keep this vile community from being passively discovered.
  • This set-up will allow for player freedom in how to engage the adventure (including the Referee, who merely need drop the island anywhere there is a body of water). PCs can choose to explore the village, sneak onto the island in the dead of night, enter the Temple from a variety of entrances (including a secret door as yet undiscovered by the kuo-toa), explore the castle or even a secret sea cave that the kuo-toa use to smuggle slaves in and out of the pits.
  • This scenario can properly begin with a rumor table, rather than plopping the PCs right in front of the secret entrance (as does A1 in tournament mode). Rumors can include red herrings to other villages in the area, thus resulting in an actual mystery that the party needs to solve prior to finding the horrors of the slave pits.
  • I also have in mind to correct the linear nature of the A-series, which takes PCs conveniently from 1 to 4 in order. Rather, I would give clues to the other locations used by the slaving ring all at once, allowing players the ability to prioritize for themselves which they wanted to tackle first.
  • Finally, the number of rooms available to explore will be increased by at least one-third (all of them empty) so as to bring the whole thing back in line with the traditional encounter-to-room ratio.
I am really intrigued by the prospects of such a project. I know not whether my schedule or my level of enthusiasm will result in any kind of finished project, but one can always hope.


Gordon Cooper said...

This is a great idea, and I strongly urge you to pursue it. In fact, I want to play it tomorrow!

Anthony said...

This sounds like a marvelous project, Dave.A1 and A2 are among my favorite adventures (less so A3 & 4), even though they're tournament-born. The idea of taking on slavers is just very, very appealing.

Your bulleted criticisms (just before the numbered list) struck me as more opportunities for GM creativity, than problems per se with the module. When I ran this (back in the early 80s), I pictured Pomarj as an analogue to Lebanon and the city where A1 was located as Beirut: both divided amongst often-hostile factions. For example, the need for secrecy comes from not wanting rivals to know just what you're doing, nor how profitable it is.

But I like the horror-laden take you're giving it, evoking Lovecraft's Innsmouth and that old movie, "The Wicker Man." And substituting the "Sea Bloods" for the Aspis is a good idea. They strike (for me, at least) at a more visceral level than the Aspis.

I'll look forward to seeing how this develops.

Tom Hudson said...

This is hugely inspirational to me, since I have a Deep Ones-style hook that I didn't know what I want to do with, and although slavery exists in the world it isn't well-defined yet.

FrDave said...

If it weren't for the tournament structure, I would agree that my qualms about A1 can be turned into GM challenges. I like the idea of Pomarj-as-Lebanon. I could also see how an aspis cow in captivity could see a group of aspis serving an evil group against their will. However, since there is so much work in realizing these ideas, I figure I might as well do something more in-tune with what is above. Thanks for the encouragement, BTW.

FrDave said...

Excellent! I hope this bears much fruit.

FrDave said...

Tomorrow, no. Someday, hopefully. Thanks for the encouragement.

Theodric the Obscure said...

All great ideas -- I like the Greyhawkian, Lovecraftian, and Prokopian directions of these adaptations. I've never played Slave Pits of the Undercity, but along with B4, it was one of the first modules I owned and reading it was very inspirational to my young mythopoetic lobe.

Legion said...


That was me.

I'm really happy to hear this.

Rock thost Pits!

Stephen P. said...

re: "Church of St Cuthbert". for they [orcs] come in large numbers, for they dislike the plants that grow here. These plants have managed to become animated through the will of the goddess whose temple this was. Although unwilling to interfere more directly than this, she has made the garden unsafe for all who enter. As characters move through this area roll a d6 each turn. On a 1-3 an encounter has occurred. Roll on the following table (d8) to determine what happens.[note: One of the other entries suggest the temple belonged to a DRUID sect, but the original module does inform the DM who that is.

FrDave said...

When I was working on this project, I wanted to give homage to the original module and its setting while putting my own spin on it. Since St. Cuthbert is an actual Christian saint, and therefore allows me to use Greyhawk and D&D according to my own predilections, I chose to pay homage to the Greyhawk setting in general rather than the specific temple as it was written in A1.