In my A Game Per Year project, my goal has been to read one roleplaying game corebook for every year they’ve been published. However, I soon started to feel that it was hard to decipher how the games were really meant to be played. For this reason, I decided to start a parallel project, An Adventure Per Year, to read one roleplaying adventure for each year they’ve been published.
The early days of roleplaying publishing are interesting in terms of adventures and scenarios. Gary Gygax believed that creating adventures was an integral part of the enjoyment of being a GM and thus it would be unlikely that published scenarios would sell very well. Because of this, the first adventures published for D&D were licensed third party releases.
To me, this feels like a type of error typical of experts and professionals. “Making adventures is easy and fun for me, the professional game designer. Therefore it’s easy and fun for everyone!”
Sometimes when I navigate confusing shopping centers or airports, I suspect their designers made a similar error. They didn’t realize that as professionals of spatial awareness, their own perspective on what’s easy to grasp was not the same as that of their audience.
Once Gygax realized that people buy adventures, he started writing them. Descent Into the Depths of the Earth is one example, interesting because its based on the idea of descending deeper into expansive underground cave systems, a precursor to the idea of the Underdark.
A lot of roleplaying adventures take place in caves but there’s a tension between realism and playability when it comes to their layout. Natural cave systems are three-dimensional complex arrangements that are quite difficult to adequately map based on someone’s verbal description at the gaming table. Conversely, the traditional “there’s a three by three square room” type dungeon has nothing to do with real caves or even real castle architecture.
Descent Into the Depths of the Earth takes a step from the design conventions of roleplaying based on a more realistic natural cave, although not to the degree that would later be adopted in Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide.
The adventure is the first of the D series, followed by Shrine of the Kuo-Toa and Vault of the Drow. Narratively its rudimentary, more of a simple encounter environment than anything else. It feels like the published roleplaying adventure as a story vehicle wasn’t quite formed yet.