Sunday, October 25, 2009

Legends of the Ancient World: The Dark Vale

I make no claim to being the greatest DM in the world. My skills are serviceable, my style pedestrian. I spend a great deal of time preparing, as i'm not the best ad-libber.

So when I come across a product that will save me prep time, give me tools to better improvise, and add some colour to the game, I tend to be quite enthusiastic about it.

Chgowiz and Chatty put together a one-page dungeon codex, earlier this year. I was pleased, as the one-page dungeon is just the kind of product I find useful. Everything I need to run a dungeon is on a single page. I can review the one page prior to the game, and there is no flipping between pages to figure out what is in this or that room.

I like the Legends of the Ancient World (LotAW) adventure products for a similar reason. You get a complete adventure in a small, 5.5 x 8.5 booklet, with each individual encounter or room, contained within the adventure, being only one paragraph (and that paragraph includes all the monster stats and treasure for the encounter). Dark City Games (DCG) has published 15 adventures (3 of those are free), and each of those adventures follow the "pre-programmed adventure" format that was briefly popular in the early 80's.

The Dark Vale is one of those adventures. The booklet itself is 48 pages (although only 32 of those pages are the adventure, the rest of the booklet consists of the complete LotAW rules, along with some maps and five Appendices). As mentioned earlier, all of the DCG products are "pre-programmed adventures". Those products are specifically designed for solo-play: while a DM can run those adventures, a player can use this product by reading the relevant paragraph, and resolving the encounter herself.

From the back cover of The Dark Vale: "Word has reached the streets of Redpoint that a lost artifact of great power lies to the southwest, in an obscure vale in the ancient Seawatch mountains. It is the Blackstone, a relic of ancient power from a mythic age. There are only a few references to it in the tomes of history: all of them fearful and despairing. The potential for an era of unchecked evil abounds, unless you find the Blackstone first and destroy it."

Pre-programmed adventures are like decision trees. Each encounter will give you several options. Depending on which option you choose, you will be referred to a different paragraph in the adventure. DCG has amplified this format by adding "plot-words" to the game, so that you can go to the same paragraph, again, but the possession of a plot-word will allow you to resolve that encounter differently. You obtain the plot-words as you make your way through the adventure.

I like The Dark Vale adventure for a couple of reasons. First, it scratches my micro-game adventure itch. All of the DCG products are mirrored on the micro-game "pre-programmed adventure" model. I am a fan of the micro-game design model, because that design model forces game designers to provide the best product they can in the smallest format possible. I find the text-bloat of the modern mega-adventure obnoxious.

Second, The Dark Vale is a wilderness adventure. I have preferred DMing dungeon adventures, in the past, because the options are bound: when a party gets to a T-intersection, there are really only 4 choices, left, right, back or stop. Wilderness and city adventures are far more challenging, since the players have a much larger range of choices, making for a more challenging night for the DM. So, when I read The Dark Vale, and found that this wilderness adventure gives the illusion of choice, while still providing the DMing with pre-planned adventures and encounters, I was encouraged. The map, above, is the map for The Dark Vale, and players can go from location to location, having encounters as they enter a new area.

Third, The Dark Vale provides a rich backdrop to the adventure. There are several groups in the Vale, all competing to obtain or destroy the "Blackstone", or prevent its capture. The players can either play the adventure "straight", or they can use those competing groups, by aligning themselves with one, or provoking those groups to fight amongst themselves.

Fourth, the adventure is your typical scavenger hunt. In order to obtain the Blackstone, you must first collect several "plot-words" and items. You might think that this is a bad thing, but once the players twig to this, they will likely get into the adventure, and have a great deal of fun, just like they might in a real-world scavenger hunt.

While I quite like this product, there are several things that could have been done to improve it. First, while I like the pre-programmed adventure design model, those products are difficult to use if being DMed. The traditional "pre-programmed adventure" design requires that the reader jump from paragraph to paragraph. For example, you might go from paragraph 1, to 162, to 37, then to 288, and so on. The point of that feature is to foil the reader from "cheating", by reading ahead in the adventure. Frankly, if a solo player is going to cheat, they are going to do that, despite the game designer's best efforts. Therefore, even though it is against the traditional design aesthetic, these products should be written in a more linear fashion, to assist those who need to read the book in preparation for game-night.

Second, while the map is an excellent tool, I would have preferred to have had two maps. One, for the players, might have signposts or markers to suggest where encounters might occur. The other map, for the DM, would have the paragraph number, and a few words to remind the DM what sort of encounter is to be had at each location.

Third, and this is not a criticism of The Dark Vale specifically, but pre-programmed adventures generally, the adventure design requires the limiting of player choice. Each encounter in a pre-programmed adventure normally limits the players' choice of actions to, at most 3-5 choices. A good DM can mask those limitations, but you should be aware that the design of The Dark Vale, and every other pre-programmed adventure, includes the limiting of player choice. Of course, this is true of every off-the-shelf adventure. The advantage of text-light adventures like The Dark Vale is that there is little to "break" if the DM needs to react to something not anticipated in the original adventure design.

The Dark Vale is a nice product. While expensive, at $13, it is a good example of the micro-game adventure, and should provide for some fun and challenging adventuring.


Gothridge Manor said...

Good to know. I'm always on the prowl for a good product that I haven't heard of. I will check it out. Thanks.

Aaron E. Steele said...

Check out some of Dark City Games free product first. That will help you assess whether this adventure design approach will work for you.

I find the material is relatively system neutral. So it can be ported over to another game system quite easily.

evildm said...

Why does the "One page dungeon" download have 44 pages?

Aaron E. Steele said...

Sorry for the late reply. The one page dungeon codex is comprised of 44 one-page dungeons.