Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Forest Oracle: The Worst is the BEST!

As I mentioned previously, my Homeguard campaign group (BECMI D&Djust completed adventure module N2 The Forest Oracle by Carl Smith (1984).
Over on RPG site enworld, The Forest Oracle has received the distinction of being heralded, "the worst TSR module ever published."  Folks there go on for 31 pages of posts (one page shorter than the module itself), describing the various flaws of this prepackaged adventure and eventually developing an amusing mini-game, writing additional encounters in an imitation of Smith's style.

These criticisms aren't unfounded.  There are certainly some pretty bizarre plot holes: 
  • If Madame Riva, a mere fourth level magic-user, is somehow potent enough to curse the entire region of the Shire ... whoops ... make that "The Downs", the event that sets up the entire plot, then why can't she handle her own ogre problem?

  • Why do the orcs feel the need to equip their prisoners with an axe?

  • Why can't the level 12 druid (who can cast spells like Finger of Death, and Creeping Doom, which can inflicting up to 1000 hp per round!) and his guard of level 5 non player characters handle a mere 21 goblins by themselves instead of needing help from the players?

    The Oracle himself
  • Why can't Chloe the nymph figure out how to wake her boyfriend, sleeping in an unlocked cabin, by herself?  If she has a magic potion that can lift (her own) enchantment upon the lake, then why doesn't she just use the antidote herself instead of waiting for the players to wander along and asking them to do it?

Then there is the style of the writing.  The majority is fine, but there are quite a few amusingly awkward passages:
  • "The trip to the Downs is accomplished with little more than travel.  The Downs looms in sight, as does the glory of helping this blighted, suffering land."

  • "Two orcs watch the party while the others rest and drink wine or eat.  One guard watches the wood cutter, and another watches those gathering fallen branches.  The four orcs sit between the two groups, roughly 150' from either.  The guards are more interested in watching their friends than a group of prisoners."

photo from quietlakect.com
Much less easy to overlook in a published for-profit product are inconsistencies and errors in the actual game mechanics or their presentation (emphasis added):

  • "Evan the Forester (Fighter; Lvl 3; AC 6; MV 12"; HD 2; hp 5; #AT 1: Dmg 2-7 [axe]; SA/SD None)"

  • goblins "(AC 6; MV 6"; HD 1-7 hp; hp 5 each; #AT 1; Dmg 1-6 [sword]; SA/SD None)"

  • "Roll 1d6.  On 1-3 the brigands surprise, on 3-4 there is no surprise, and on 5-6 the party surprises."

Of course it's more than a little absurd to go back to these products from the 80s and critique them as if they were works of literature; I doubt anyone would bother to do the same with 30-year-old articles from Readers Digest or Life magazine, but then with the rise of the Old School Renaissance there is significant interest among a certain set of gamers in these classic products.

For me, The Forest Oracle is distinct by being the very first TSR module that I ever purchased, prepared, and ran on my own.  I'd already run my older brother's copy of B2 The Keep on the Borderlands and many homemade scenarios prior to this, but I can remember walking into Juvenile Sales (now defunct; yes, it had the absolute worst name for a toy store EVER) looking for new game material like it was yesterday.  

The Keith Parkinson artwork on the from cover, the fairly brief length, the generic fantasy world setting, the sealed shrink wrap, and the fact that it was a low level module (for levels 2-4) that could provide new adventure for my players who had completed B2 all made The Forest Oracle an obvious pick.
How awesome was Keith Parkinson? cover of Northern Wilderness, Paladium Books
My first run through was a bit rough, but my players were patient.  I think I was so focused on keeping the game moving that I overlooked the module's flaws and we had a good time over the three sessions it took to complete it.  The plot was so simple and episodic that the next time I ran it I didn't need to refer very closely to the text, and so again, the flaws went largely unnoticed.  I'd go on to run The Forest Oracle maybe six more times over the years and at some point I stopped even bothering to bring the module to the table, just working from memory.

When I ran it last month for The Homeguard campaign, a handful of modest changes made the game play both rich and memorable:
  • When confronted by the brigands, the characters gave the secret pass-sign that they had learned from another group of bandits outside Quasqueton during an earlier quest and ended up with a rich source of rumors, foreshadowing, and advice.

     from http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Siren
  • Chloe, the nymph of Quiet Lake, became a frightening, ghostly siren who longed for companionship, but couldn't understand why her lovers became so still and dull when she had lured them below the surface of the lake.

  • The Bloody Hand orcs were recast as the vanguard of a massive horde and forecast events that will continue to impact the campaign. 

  • Starbuck the red squirrel, a knight visiting the court of the High Druid, became a companion and guide upon the trail.

In the end, Carl Smith's work, for all its flaws, had done exactly what it was designed to do: it opened a door to a new imaginative landscape and provided a springboard for ideas that continue to provide players with hours of adventure and fun.  

You can get it as a pdf from Drive Thru RPG for $4.99 right here.

Best . module . ever .

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