Friday, March 9, 2012

Judges Guild Retrospective #1: Modron (1977, 1980)

(For wonderful retrospectives of early DnD products, check out James M.'s fabulous OSR blog, Grognardia.)

I was a fan of Judges Guild products since my introduction to the hobby in the hamster-urine smelling room of my friend Kenneth and his older brother, Richard. In the City State of the Invincible Overlord, my preteen fantasies came to life in the naughty Park of Obscene Statutes and in the titillating calls of the Houris. Back then, the JG products had a lot of flavor, particularly compared to the relatively conservative offerings of TSR. Full of goofy, slapstick, dangerous, and sexual flavor, Judges Guild products rarely failed to amuse.

Judges Guild had other things going for it, too.  It was, well before the OGL, one of the only officially licensed content providers for D&D.  JG was was fairly prolific, too -- at my game store, Judges Guild products seriously outnumbered TSR offerings, especially adventures and settings.  At the time, I regarded JG product as inferior (Gary didn't write it! Noooo!), which in retrospect was unduly harsh.  JG supported their product like nobody's business -- nearly every D&D product they put out was tied to their Wilderlands setting, and their Pegasus magazine was always adding new City State content.  One can only imagine how great it would have been had TSR provided half as much support for Greyhawk and its other settings.

And so we come to the retrospective of Modron, written by Judges Guild founder Bob Bledsaw (one of the hobby's pioneers) and Gary Adams.  Like many JG products, Modron explored a particular area of the Wilderlands setting without providing fully fleshed-out adventures.  The idea, which is very representative of OD&D and 1st Edition, was simply to provide the proverbial sandbox and tools for the DM to make the area his own. Judged by this design goal, Modron was, and is, a success.

To the East / Northeast of the City State, downstream along the Estuary of Roglaroon, lies the Walled Town of Modron.   As the Kevin Siembieda artwork illustrates, watery adventures were in the offing.  The product (32 pages, counting the covers) is fairly typical of early JG products, devoting a lot of attention to rules, charts, hex maps of the town and underwater adventure area, Seimbieda art of uneven quality, and colorful descriptions of Modron and its inhabitants.  The main difference between the 1977 and 1980 versions, as best I can tell, is that the '77 version maps were on the wonderful parchment paper, whereas the second printing in '80 maps, though in color, were on the interior, low-quality paper and stapled in the middle of the product to be removed by hand.  The "players' maps," mostly blank versions of the main maps to be used by the party and filled out, were unfortunately printed on the inside and outside rear cover of the booklet.  My secondhand 1980 version sadly lacks the parchment "players" maps, but either way, the maps highlight a wonderful aspect of Old School D&D -- when exploration and mapping (including wilderness mapping) were a major part of the game.

Rules and Tables: As befitting a setting with watery adventures, the beginning and ending sections of the book detail rules for swimming and drowning, water current, weather effects underwater (!), terrain descriptions for the undersea maps (with adjustments for visibility, movement, and surprise), tables for the strange misty waters surrounding underwater features, a coral chart (!) featuring types, colors, poison deadliness and values,  pearl-diving charts, random underwater encounter charts, shark charts (you know you're in for it when the sharks have their own damned chart), and, yes ... the Sea Monster table, wherein one might encounter anything from an entire warband of 30d10 Mermen to a Kraken to the Loch Ness monster ...

Background and Fluffy Bits: Some effort was made to give a brief history of the Town of Modron and its namesake, the Goddess Modron, deity of Rivers.  The artwork alternates from interesting to silly to amusingly bad; there are several full-page, full-color works that seem like filler to get the product to 32 pages.  Still, there are some juicy story tidbits throughout, like the sea hag that sells a horrid seafood concoction that bestows water-breathing on landlubbers, allowing them to explore the shipwrecks and sunken temples offshore ...

Town Description:  Like all JG towns, streets each have colorful names ("Struttin' Strech," "Brain-Basher Boulevard") with their own random encounter elements.  It's a bit much by today's standards, but very much in keeping with the "have fun until you die" spirit of early D&D.  This style is present throughout Modron (and indeed, in most of Bledsaw's own work product) and extends to the buildings, NPCs, and products and services available in Modron.

The Maps:  As an unabashed fan of JG's maps, I enjoyed the maps immensely, though I would have enjoyed the parchment versions much more than the on-page versions.  The underwater adventure map was just begging to be keyed and stocked with watery monsters and treasures.

Like all old school products you have to get past the lower production quality and meh art to find the value in Modron, but it is there.  It presents a complete toolkit for numerous town and underwater adventures of the DM's creation.  It's a great example of a "game aid" (as it bills itself) -- a colorful setting for the DM and players to make their own, without ramrodding anyone into an adventure path.

Overall Grade: A-.  A great representative of a Bledsaw-penned sandbox setting and adventure area.

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