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Subject: Gary Gygax's Masterpiece rss

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Eric M. Aldrich I
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Preamble

The merits of published adventures are debatable. While on one hand they are seen as a crutch for DMs, on the other they are great instructional tools for the novice DM to learn the trade.

Back in the mid to late 1970s there was a paucity of examples to choose from, and some of what there was was poor to say the least. However, one name stood above all others as to the amount of influence over the hobby, and that name was Gary Gygax.

Thankfully, Gygax knew how to write a darn good adventure. Many of the stereotypes of *good* adventure design were present in his earliest modules. Some were in fact slugfests — more roll playing than role playing. But some were very good and hold up well even today.

Over the course of the run of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition, Gygax published several "Dungeon Modules", many considered milestones in the hobby. There is considerable debate as to which was the best. Many cite S1: The Tomb of Horrors or S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or even T1: Village of Hommlet as the best of his works. However, the one I would choose and which many would agree is none other than the conclusion of the second part of the epic GDQ series, D3: Vault of the Drow.

It is also the earliest published of the adventures mentioned above, and was the sixth module published by TSR for AD&D in 1978.

The Product

The original release of D3 consisted of a 32-page black-and-white 8.5 by 11 booklet with a tri-fold two-color cardstock folio cover. It sold for $6, which at the time was fairly expensive compared to other modules, most of which were $5 or less. Four of the pages were actually blank as they were the back of player hand outs.

Illustrations were sparse, totaling about 2 of the pages. The adventure description itself is about 20 pages. It illustrates what could be done with the state of the art at the time.

The Adventure

Why is this adventure so highly regarded? Well, Gygax presents a complete society, with all its factions and conflicts. The players can infiltrate the society and interact with the various entities there. It is possible to have months(!) of adventure within the vault if DM and players are game. There is fearsome combat opportunities to be sure, but this is a role-playing paradise. Mingling with the evil that resides within is a necessary part of the adventure for the most part.

Eventually the players will have to deal with the noble houses, and that leads to even more possibilities for intrigue and adventure.

There's even a religious schism to be exploited! The demoness Lolth makes her first appearance here. If things go well (or poorly, depending on one's view) you can even encounter her.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
The source of the trouble with the giants turns out not to be Lolth at all, but the rival for the Drow's adulation, "an Elder Elemental God". This is changed a bit in the GDQ 1-7 super module.


The adventure starts similar to the previous two in that there are two small planned encounters noted on the map, though both can be easily avoided.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
the obvious way to avoid them leads to another fixed encounter that is only noted on the DM's map


Then there is vault itself. It consists of forests of fungi, a couple of fighting societies, merchant estates, the "black tower", the city of Erelhei-Cinlu, and the noble estates. It stretches over about 50 square miles, so as you can imagine there's a lot here.

There are beings from all over the underdark running around throughout the vault, all potentially hostile but many with their own agendas completely independent of the main story line.

The city of Erelhei-Cinlu is a complete adventure in itself, but one that must be designed by the DM for the most part. There are about 30,000 inhabitants of all sordid sorts. Gygax provides an outline as to what to expect but that's about it. There is no way for a party to take this place on. It is an evil society in all its glory and depravity, but it is functional and it works.

Both the noble and merchant estates receive more detail, but again, a lot is left to the DM. Still, there's enough here to run things off the cuff. All the alliances, personalities, and forces are provided.

Finally, there is the Great Fane of Lolth, which can be the climax of the adventure. This is the way to the concluding module in the series, Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits. However, to accomplish the original mission it does not need to actually be attempted.

Conclusion

So if Gygax just presents what is essentially an outline why do people regard this so highly? Well, in 1978 the thought that you could take a "dungeon" and turn it into a situation where you might not have to fight for days on end and actually interact with your "adversaries" was pretty revolutionary. The module makes role playing a necessity for a thinking party and DM. Other than possibly the City State of the Invincible Overlord (which was far less widely distributed), there was little that even tried to do this.

This adventure could have easily been expanded to 256 pages and dozens of maps. If any of Gygax's early creations warranted the boxed set treatment this was it. People properly laud Return to the Tomb of Horrors as a great expansion of a classic. There is so much more here it's not even funny. For a DM with an imagination this takes care of 20+ gaming sessions easy, and probably a lot more. If only WotC had taken the time to work with Gygax again on this module. An opportunity lost sadly forever.

I played this module back in 1980 and took short cuts left and right. We avoided the city and headed straight for the back with the one lead we had from G3. A shame. It was a lot of fun, but we took the hard road. In retrospect had the DM been merciless and played the Drow more intelligently we'd have been toast (but hey, the eldest of us was 14 at the time).

This is Gygax's finest hour. While I give it only an 8, it's due to all the advances in presentation that have some since 1978 (that's 33 years, for those that are counting). For the time it was a 10. If it was expanded to cover all the stuff that's present in outline form it'd be a $60 boxed set at least. Menzoberranzan looks like an amateurish rip off of this module -- this had it all 14 years earlier.

If you ever see this on the shelf in a used game section and you do not already have a copy, buy it. If ever an early module illustrated what was possible for the then fledgling RPG hobby this was it. It's a good read and chalk full of good ideas. You won't regret it.
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Will (JR) Todd
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Very nice entry and tribute to the master, thank you. Believe it or not I bought the entire S, G, and D series and many others as they were released. I think I just dated myself. My group and I had many, many hours of enjoyment from these adventures, and it's nice that people like you are remembering these with fondness.

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Eric M. Aldrich I
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Same here for the most part -- I let someone else in the group pick up the G series and paid considerably more to acquire the originals years later.

But yeah, the S and D series I picked them up right as they came out or shortly thereafter.
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Troy
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This overtext is far more interesting than I am.
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Nice review on a classic. Well done Eric.
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