Ode to Thoopshib

One of my favorite encounters is the Kuo-Toa ferryman offering passage across the underground river in module D2: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa.[1]  The encounter is a gem-like example of the admirable qualities of early D&D. (Please note spoilers follow, if you wish to play D2 in the future.)

 Evocative:  Sets a feel of gonzo, surreal weirdness.  As written in 1978 this creature was the first Kuo-Toa encountered, so is strange, exotic, and horrific.  Yet when he approaches, it is for mundane purpose: to croak out in the eerie underground language the price for passage across the river.  Imagine encountering a lovecraftian fish-beast lurking in the dark near an underground river who opens his mouth and says… “Do you want the blue plate special?”  The overall effect communicates loads of atmosphere.

 Non-prescriptive:  The players get what they bring to this encounter.  As Gygax says in the introduction to the module, “the river crossing, can be very easy to accomplish, or the rash party can turn it into a deadly nightmare.”  The result of meeting Thoopshib could be anything from peaceful transaction to a nasty combat and/or an accidental raft trip all the way to the Sunless Sea – largely driven by how the characters respond to the situation, not a pre-ordained script[2].  Yet the likely outcomes are reasonable based on party actions.

 Random element:  Thoopshib is unbalanced, and if he is not understood he has a chance of going berserk.  The chance of him flipping out provides both an element of surprise for the DM, and a layer of challenge for the players – have they realized they need to be able to communicate with the denizens of the underworld?  Have they secured a translator during their journey so far?  Even so, the situation could still turn bad – welcome to the underworld!  (Note this represents an elegant solution in this encounter to analysis/paralysis – the longer the players dither over how to deal with Thoopshib, the more likely he is to go off.)

For those who like literary and story-telling elements in their adventuring, the encounter is foreshadowing (and metonymy, for you english majors).  This simple encounter is at heart the whole module writ small: an encounter a savvy party can simply walk through, but a combative or greedy party can founder on.  Thoopshib offers a very topical lesson to the “rash party” capable of learning from experience, right before they walk into the Shrine.  In writing this is known as “show, don’t tell.”

 Concise: In less than half a page, 600 words, EGG outlines a robust encounter, limning the situation such that a DM can fill in details, adapt the situation to a particular campaign, and respond to a wide variety of player actions easily, all without losing the general outline or purpose of the encounter.  Like with many (but not all!) of the D&D ur-texts, there is a lot of content and little wasted space. (See “Evocative” above.)[3]

 1) [SPOILER] For those not familiar with the encounter, it occurs at a river crossing along the shore of a vast underground river.  Thoobshib is an “unbalanced” Kuo-Toa who charges a fee to pole passengers across the river on his barge.  He offers to ferry the characters across, speaking in the common tongue of the underworld.  Each time he has to repeat his offer he has an increasing chance of going berserk and attacking.  He is a formidable creature and even a large and powerful party appropriate to the module (at least six players, average ninth level) will have trouble if they do not handle him well.

 [2] In sharp contrast to later D&D products (I am looking at you, Dragonlance) the characters could actually be completely sidetracked out of the rest of modules D2 and D3 if they are not careful, in a sort of anti-railroad.

 [3] I wish I could write like that.  Instead, my little review here has used 663 words and three footnotes! to describe 605 words of encounter.  For shame! ; )

6 Responses to “Ode to Thoopshib”

  1. March 31, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Nice analysis! I’m struggling with length myself – I’m thinking of creating a new level of Caverns of Thracia for the Jaquays issue of Fight On, and it’s tough to be as spartan as the old school exemplars, even if I’m trusting in charts, maps, and illustrations instead of text to do most of the work.

  2. March 31, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    A classic example of a sandbox encounter.

    Note that such encounters demand that the referee remain wholly impartial. Any inclination toward steering the results in one direction or another invalidates the whole point of the encounter.

  3. 3 maldoor
    March 31, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    > a new level of Caverns of Thracia

    Hmmm. “The Secret Caves of Grastic Hammerclay?” “Pleasure Chambers of the Lizard God?” “The Meditation Complex of Thanatos?” “The Hunting Maze of the Beast Lord?” “The Corridors of Endless Gnolls?”

    I am eager to see how this is integrated into the existing three-dimensional structure of the dungeon.

  4. March 31, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Maldoor, when you say this is one of your favorite encounters, are you speaking as a referee, as a player or as a reader of role playing game material?

  5. March 31, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    @Eric: Ggod point! The fun (and challenge) of such an encounter is remaining impartial as a referee while also roleplaying a creature who has a definite objective of its own. I think that using dice to determine if it goes berserk helps to maintain that separation: as neutral arbiter I roll to see what stance I’ll now roleplay.

    @Maldoor: Working title is “Castle of the Defenseless Babies”. Spatial integration is through the higher dimension in which copies of the 1979 JG publication co-exist with the ninth issue of Fight On. You may begin researching a spell to enter the 2010 age of creation, and another to step into the page containing the Castle once you’re here.

    (Actually I figure I’ll present it as a standalone and just mention that in my campaign, a certain corridor connects it to the Caverns: other referees can make their own linkages.)

  6. 6 maldoor
    March 31, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    @Eric – Excellent questions. Speaking as a reader first, referee second. Sadly, I never played through D2 myself, since I was the DM at the time.

    It probably reflects my gaming career (which stopped around 1986 before starting again in 2008) but I take it for granted that the ref remains impartial, or at least is not pushing too hard one way or another. In D&D (as I have experienced it) a referee who pushes too hard for a specific outcome tends to alienate players, quickly.

    I am sure it is different in more recent games where the players have authorial control and so can actively steer the game around, I just don’t have much experience with those games. Maybe someday, once we all move to the RPG Retirement Village.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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