Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Key of Tirandor

News of Mongoose's forthcoming In From The Cold, a retrospective of Dave Morris pieces for the Dwarf reminded me of Key of Tirandor which is included within. Since it's a collection of Dave Morris articles I am assuming that Mike Polling is a pseudonym - a fairly common practise in the magazine industry in order to avoid letting on that the majority of editorial content is written by one or two people. Certainly reading the excellent Fabled Lands blog shows a strong similarity in style.

For me Tirandor was the subject of much curiosity for a very long time. It was serialised in WD49 and WD50 (Jan and Feb 1984) and while I've had a copy of WD50 for nearly twenty years, WD49 eluded me until recently. So I periodically used to come across the second half of this AD&D scenario that appears to be set inside the head of some doo-lally-tat wizard and wonder how on earth the plot had led there.

As originally published for AD&D the scenario is 10 pages long which doesn't sound very much (would cover about two encounter areas for a 3.5E dungeon I think...) but as was typical of the Dwarf in this era, there is a hell of lot of text densely crammed into those pages in the traditional small print. Break out your magnifying glasses anyone thinking of running it today.

Dense tiny text aside this scenario really packs the material in tightly. In the first five pages we get a campaign background to a stand-alone fantasy world, a world map, six high-level pre-gens, two player's introductions, four "handouts" to set the scene (fragments of manuscripts relevant to the party leader's magical research), a journey through three separate locations and two "dungeons" (actually a large house in a swamp and a subterranean city) with 25 and 103 "rooms" respectively.

Dungeon design is massively sped up by having several rooms sharing a single, gnomic description (e.g. G, H, I : Reception rooms; empty, dusty) or just titles (Cooking Area, Sleeping Quarters etc.). It's a good lesson in economical writing when designing dungeons and megadungeon aficionados should take a look at it.

Anyway, to the plot and atmosphere. Heavily spoilered so apply discretion.

Tirandor is the Atlantis of the campaign setting (a setting that lacks Gods and therefore functional Clerics), a mythical land that never existed except it did and as is the norm for this sort of thing, great power lies waiting for whoever can find it.

8th Level MU Kastarys believes it exists and assembles a bunch of 7th and 8th level pre-gens to help him look for it.

It might have something to do with that mountain range just to the south of the campaign start point, the one named THE MOUNTAINS OF TIRANDOR. Not that I'm giving anything away here.

Oh, and pre-gen Zanok has some worthless family heirloom called THE KEY OF TIRANDOR. Apparently this isn't thought to be significant despite the fact that the party are searching for a place called TIRANDOR which is, of course, only a child's tale in a place called MOUNTAINS OF TIRANDOR in a scenario called THE KEY OF TIRANDOR. The artifact called THE KEY OF TIRANDOR therefore can't be very important even though (SPOILER) this place called TIRANDOR which doesn't exist actually does.

Quote "He has no idea of it's significance", suggesting that Int 12 and Wis 13 don't count for much these days.

This strikes me as causing some searching questions about five minutes into the first game session or alternatively never turning up at all as Zanok's player doesn't bother to read his character sheet. My solution would be a separate briefing for Zanok saying that the quest for non-existent TIRANDOR intrigues him because of the old family heirloom and he has agreed to it out of curiosity and a feeling of being fated to it - it then being up to Zanok's player as to when and if the heirloom is mentioned to the other PCs.

Off we go to Tirandor then...

First off is an attack by bandits which appears to be a bit of a random encounter except that when slaughtered their leader drops a gem which Zanok (or whoever is carrying The Key if he is not, for example he's dead already and mysteriously enough the rest decided to keep his it's-useless-right? family heirloom) feels a urge to keep and merge with the rest of The Key. This crops up during the scenario, both apparently coincidental encounters with people who have the other parts of the key and a certain degree of telling the PCs what they feel. I'm always leary of this sort of thing. It needs a party who are happy with being told what they feel and get on it. I'm not sure that many of the people I've ever roleplayed with are like that.

Then we enter the swamps after fighting off 12 fanatic wolves who oddly lack a pack leader (the fight to the death nature of the encounter and lack of alpha male is stressed but never explained). Random encounter table including the wonderful entry "Miscellaneous harmless creatures".

The swamp contains the House of Dorganath our 25-room dungeon. This is where I start to get a miffed with the set-up of the scenario. Dorganath is a pretty neat creation - he is an evil wizard who is mystically tied to the swamps and has a certain amount of Tom Bombadil in him in that he is a partial personification of the land. If one dies the other does, but this is never very clear to the PCs because they won't be hanging around to see the presumable drying out of the swamps after they off him nor is there any real scope of attacking him via the swamp - I can imagine a Mussolini-style piece of civic engineering to drain the swamps therefore draining all his power away but obviously that is never going to happen within the confines of a game session.

Where I start to get a little bit miffed and start to suspect that the scenario might not work for me is the nature of the way this is written - it seems to remove much in the way of player choice. For a start as it is setup the party can wander the swamp and go nowhere or follow the shifting patches of dry land that Dorganath is producing to lead them to his house. No real choice.

The swamps are also one of two areas whereby any attempt to resolve the problem by flying meets a real "you can't do that because it ruins my plot" suggestion which makes it seem daft to give two PCs the ability to fly (Zanok's Wings of Flying and Kastarys' Fly spell) and another access to a Djinn which presumably also flies. (In both instances, the answers are that the house and path cannot be seen when flying and later on any attempt to fly over a solid wall causes the wall to grow and not permit it).

Once at Dorganath's house he has access to a host of not-quite-zombies, animated souls of his victims and those of the swamp. These don't fight but effectively stop the PCs from doing anything that Dorganath/The DM doesn't want them to do. The PCs have to meet him for a chat and then kill him, even if they try to circumvent the plot by breaking in rather than knocking on the door, the plot armour zombies come along and through sheer bloody-mindedness force them back on the right track.

Secondly, a lot of the excellent ideas are opaque to the players. Case in point being Dorganath. Unless the DM has the swamps suddenly turn into virgin pasture within ten seconds of the wizard's death the whole idea will have to be explained later ("Here's what that meant and what was going on") and that's like having to explain a joke. Or like Donnie Darko whereby you have to read the director's website to find out all the stuff he never bothered to explain in the film - a film that I absolutely detest and believe that anybody who rates it is just trying to hide the fact that it's bollocks and they didn't understand it either. Emperors New Clothes and all that. But I digress.

Once out of Dorganath's house and into the mountains, the party runs into the sage Aroyendis. Aroyendis is basically a super being who can't be touched, quotes T.S. Eliot with the players expected to pick up on this OOC in order to twig that this is because of his quote "position at the precise point where all dimensions, all times, all universes, in short, all realities meet." In my book this makes him Yog-Sothoth but then it probably wouldn't because I wouldn't recognise T.S. Eliot unless it was that "whimper not a bang" business.

I'm being pretty down on this but actually I like everything in this scenario except the scenario. I like the ideas, I like the rough progression through the plot/journey but I don't like the way it is implemented with it's DM-exclusive details and lack of meaningful player choice. I like it, but I wouldn't run it this way. I'd much prefer to flesh it out drastically and remove much of the railroad feel.

We'll carry onto the Anak city and then onto metaphysical weirdness in a following post.

(Off topic - thanks to everyone for the kind wishes and words re eye op - very much appreciated and feels much better to be out of purdah so to speak and able to do things myself now. Just a matter of waiting for focusing to sharpen up now.)


  1. Since they're converting the scenarios over to Dragon Warriors, one would hope they're also taking the opportunity to tidy up the text in a more general fashion.

    Although I am quite guilty of White Dwarf Was Amazing nostalgia, I do recognise that a lot of these adventures needed a lot of tinkering to make playable. It's the ideas we're remembering fondly, as you suggest, not the stuff around them.

  2. Great illustration by Trevor Hammond slap bang in the middle of that one. I'll have to dig those issues out and read the adventure.

  3. kelvingreen - good point well made and one that will probably turn up in the rest of the review.

    zhu bajiee - I've convinced that picture is supposed to be Frank Zappa. Russ Nicholson illustrated part 2.

  4. Got to tell you that Mike Polling isn't a pseudonym. He's a good friend and I played in the Tirandor campaign when he first ran it - that was a few years before it appeared in WD. It came as a surprise to me (and probably to Mike) to find it being reprinted in IFTC. A welcome surprise, I hasten to add!

    Thanks for the kind words about the Fabled Lands blog btw :)