Thursday, March 9, 2017


Thanks to Paul W. for sharing with me the news that my old module RETURN TO THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS was under discussion online:

   Without going into too much detail, I can confirm the guess one of the posters made that this adventure was never intended to be set in Mystara. I did a lot of work on Mystara during my time at TSR -- e.g. WRATH OF THE IMMORTALS (ed & dev), MARK OF AMBER (edited Jeff's text, added the timeline, and created the audio-cd dialogue), HAIL THE HERO (ed), the PLAYER'S SURVIVAL KIT (wrote), Mystara MC (edited a quarter of the whole). But that game world had gone into abeyance when TSR collapsed, and its great champion, Bruce Heard, was not among those who made the transition to Wizards of the Coast. Another factor that has to be taken into account is that several drafts of the D&D movie were set in Glantri, which meant a mandated hands-off approach for the game world so far as rpg products went.

   Similarly, it was not intended to be a Greyhawk adventure either. I deliberately wrote it to not be world-specific. Which made it a nasty shock when Powers That Be slapped a GREYHAWK logo on the back cover. I got a lot of grief for that from diehard Greyhawk fans at the time,* who pointed out non-Oerthian elements that made it an uneasy fit as an official World of Greyhawk release. I wdn't have been writing a GH product in any case, since there was a separate Greyhawk team among the department at WotC in charge of revitalizing that line, headed by Kij Johnson and including Roger Moore, and I think Harold Johnson during the brief time he was out in Renton; certainly Sean Reynolds, and I think Steve Miller.  In any case, any official WoG product wd have come out of their team, and I wasn't a member of it .

   It's also significant that when I was writing this adventure the clock had already started ticking to wind down Second Edition and ramp up to launch 3e (I was to be the co-editor, w. Julia Martin, of two of its three core books: the PH & DMG). I was deliberately eclectic and included passing allusions to a number of modules from the past: M2. Maze of the Riddling Minotaurs, L2. The Assassins Knot, B1. In Search of the Unknown, X2. Castle Amber, the Mark of Amber boxed set, B4. The Lost City, L1. The Secret of Bone Hill, et al. I even talked the art director into letting me reproduce, as a piece of pick-up art, a striking image depicting a swarm of stirges in silhouette from the original 1st edition DMG.

   I added into the mix other things that came out of my own campaign. To give just one example, the spellbook full of new necromancy spells, The Book of Dead Smiles, alluded to in one room description were in fact spells written up by a PC of mine, some of which later appeared in Tome and Blood, while others saw print in Secret College of Necromancy from Green Ronin.  Other allusions come from far and wide: a group of inattentive guards who are playing MtG; the punchline from a Yamara cartoon (from before Yamara got weird); a character from one of the all-time great fantasy short stories (Frank Stockton's 1887 "Bee Man of Orn"); a god's name taken from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide radio show ('Quonzar' simply being Zarquon swapped around).

   I have to confess, though, that all this eclecticism was not just for its own sake. I meant what I said in that third paragraph: "one of the greatest strengths of AD&D is its endless adaptability" (Return to the Keep p. 2). There it refers to home rules, but it's equally applicable to claim a little ground back from game world loyalists. It was common practice for gamers to freely adapt modules from various game worlds into their ongoing campaign. But by the mid to late '90s players were more and more locked into pregenerated game worlds, with those who liked Greyhawk avoiding The Forgotten Realms, fans of the Known World keeping their distance from Birthright, and so forth. In what was explicitly billed as an introductory module, I wanted to establish precedent for taking and adapting published adventures to a given DMs' ongoing campaign,** and for taking interesting characters or plots or groups over from one module to another, even if the latter was not part of the same continuity.  I thought that was as important in an instructional module as the scenes designed to promote role-playing (e.g., what do you do with an evil character who's not just friendly but downright helpful? Do you have enough sense to know to run away when you're in over your head?).

   Finally, re. one specific point raised in the online discussion, I can lay one speculation to rest.
Unfortunately, while I still have my copy of Jeff Grubb's "Warriors of the Gray Queen", I've misplaced my copy of Ed Stark's "The Displaced" and don't remember this mini-adventure well enough to recall specific details. But I can confirm that I don't have any memory of Duiran the Dwarf and am sure that he was not created by me and never figured in my adventure at any point. Ed was in my playtest of Return to the Keep, which I ran over lunchtimes at the WotC office for several weeks; perhaps Duiran was his character, though that's just speculation on my part. I assume Aseneth the necromancer was dropped as a player-character in the mini-adventure over qualms over having an evil pregen PC.
   'Con' by the way is a misprint for 'Cob', the character's name in my adventure.

--John R.

            *one of the reasons I've largely stayed away from forums ever since.

**This is not to say that I don't enforce strict conformity to the continuity and rules when editing a product set in a specific game world, like RAVENLOFT, SPELLJAMMER, al-QADIM, EBBERON, &c., all of which I worked on at some point. I literally have a button that reads The most rabid literary purist -- which my wife got for me after a Tolkien friend of mine concluded discussion of some point relating to Tolkien's work with the remark that 'only the most rabid literary purist' could disagree, and I promptly challenged him on the point.

1 comment:

Paul W said...

Many thanks for posting this!

Now I'd just love to see your indepth take X2 and the Castle Amber boxed set. ;D