Monday, November 15, 2010

Classic Monsters and Adventure Design

Last year I delivered a paper on nostalgia and the Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics line of adventures at the Popular Culture Association conference in St. Louis. For the paper I read every adventure cover-to-cover and I (naturally) played a few using the 3.5 rule-set. I'm currently revising the paper for publication.

Since reading through these adventures, I've thought a great deal about the classic TSR adventures I played back in the day, the 3.5 retro-modules, and the modules published more recently by (or associated with) Goblinoid Games and Mythmere Games.

Adventures come in all shapes and sizes, of course, and I know what makes an adventure fun for one group might be boring for another. Having said that I really do wish that more adventures led to a climatic battle with a classic monster. I'm not talking a "boss" battle. I'm talking adventures wherein the party hunts down and defeats the deadly Chimera of Ulik! Or the Medusa that lurks in the Sunken City! Or the blood-thirsty Gorgon of Burgal-Thor! I mean, who wouldn't want to go on those adventures? You know what I mean?

I'm talking an adventure that you can bang out in a night or two with your friends that leads to a death-match between the PCs and a mighty archetypal beast. Don't give me any of the railroad/sandbox bull-shit either. It isn't about that. It's about sitting down having fun with your friends, but it's also about the anticipation of the battle with the great beast - and if you've played D&D long enough you know that feeling - excitement mixed with trepidation.

It's for these reasons that I think DCC#35a Halls of the Minotaur is brilliant, and provides a model for what I'd like to see/what I'm looking for. At the outset you know a minotaur is involved - but it's the anticipation of the battle to come that makes it a really cool adventure. The slow but steady build to the climatic battle with a minotaur - and it doesn't get more classic than that in terms of monsters. Further, adventures like this set the monster apart. The minotaur isn't standard-fare anymore. The adventure returns the minotaur to the exotic monster status it should have, and I really dig that.

Don't mistake the type of adventure I'm talking about here. I'm not talking about the Giant Series, or the Drow Series, where you fight so many of the same monster that you really can't distinguish one battle from the next. I'm talking a climactic battle with an archetypal monster.


  1. Now that you mention it, I wonder why it's not more popular. I mean, modern monster hunting is a fairly popular genre, so why not medieval monster hunting? Beowulf comes to mind.

  2. It certainly has gigantic, archetypal precedent in any folklore you care to name. I think it's all in the presentation.

  3. Who defines "archetypal"? It moves with the demographic. My best case ending creature is the Dragon. Many think that overdone. Some like the Demon or Devil. What will be archetypal tomorrow, whatever the hell harry potter is fighting?

  4. I like the idea of dropping lots of clues along the way, so that the anticipation builds...

  5. Indeed--the idea of going to fight a "monster" is what's archetypal. The specific monster is merely cultural artifact.

  6. Another tack one could take is the PCs deciding to hunt an entire species of monster to extinction. "You know, these dang vampires ruin our fun and drain our levels every few sessions. Let's get serious and hunt them ALL down."

  7. In my opinion every monster battle should be as unique as what you describe. I don't like the cannon fodder monster mentality of D&D, to be honest. I'd like there to be a lead up to something really memorable, fighting a beast that is really unusual and monstrous.

  8. Caverns of Thracia isn't as explicit about this as it could be, but here's a quote from actual play:
    Me early on: Whats the goal of the adventure? Why are we here?
    Them: Gold, treasure, and to kill the minotaur king/Beastlord.
    Me: Why are we killing him?
    Them: Because he's the guy on the cover of the module!

    Very interested in your paper, let me know if you need readers reasonably versed in academese before sending it in!
    - Tavis

  9. You know, this is going to seem a bit "off topic" here... But one of the things you said, "bang out in a night or two", really struck a chord with me. This is EXACTLY what we're looking for as a group. Frankly we don't have the attention span to slog through a heavily plot-burdened 140+ page module.

    I'm not trying to denigrate a plot per-se. I'm just saying that I've been playing this game for a long long time, and things have changed for me. I'm older, I've got children, a wife, things that demand my time and attention. I can't successfully remember the "plot" from session to session. Nor do I care. I want to lose myself in fantasy. The type of fantasy that Lieber portrayed in his stories. The type that you saw in Conan movies. Nothing to do with cerebral play. All about the visceral see...

    And at the end? A climactic confrontation is all we ask for.