In my last piece I wrote about one of the modules I wrote back in the Mesozoic era. “After all our 12 year old minds, while imaginative, couldn’t spin a coherent narrative. I still have a dungeon I wrote back then called Torth. It’s… um… well, the Plan 9 of modules. Made no sense.” Within hours, the stalwart and suffering editor sent to me “I am curious about Torth! Although my opinion of Plan 9 is colored by Ed Wood, which I’ve seen several more times than the actual Plan 9 haha.” [NERDITOR’S NOTE: That’s me!] However, by that point the semester was concluding, work was piling up, and I couldn’t do it. Now the semester is done (I earned 2 A’s and an A-) and here I am sitting on the couch writing about something I wrote some 40 plus years ago. Get off my lawn.
Torth: Castle of Evil
I started this while I was still the Dungeon Master for my first module, B1: In Search of the Unknown. For those who don’t know this module it was the first Basic Box Set module even before B2: Keep on the Borderlands. While B2 had all the monsters filled in, B1 didn’t. What the writers did for this one was they’d describe the room and leave space for the DM to include Monster then Treasure. So this kid got to enter whatever monster they wished whether they made sense or not. In one room would be a couple of goblins while the next room over (a 20 ft. x 20 ft. no less) would have a red dragon. My player (the Dave I mentioned last column) didn’t care. Kick open the door, kill the monster, collect the treasure (never mind how much people could actually carry), do whatever was in the room (ooh, pools!) then repeat. Yes, that was Quasqueton, stronghold of Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown!
I added a third level to Q, which featured an underground lake with an island on which were the barracks for all the off-duty monsters. There was a bugbear barracks, a room for vampires…you get the idea. That was me trying to figure out a reason for the monster placement.
After that it was Dave’s turn to DM and I played my first character, Apollo. We played almost every night. During study halls or after going home after gaming I started writing what I thought would be my magnum opus! It needed a name. One afternoon when we weren’t playing the Monkees were on TV. One of them was Peter Tork. I changed the name a little and so the module had a name: TORTH!
I started by drawing one third a map, wrote about the rooms, then more map and so on. Oh, this was great stuff! Killer! No character could possibly survive! Plot? What’s that? Dave also wrote some of the dungeon and I asked people who had no idea about the game for trap ideas as well. Torth eventually had three levels, two of which had giant underground lakes (one on top of the other??) with 200 total rooms and was finished on June 10, 1980. I even bought a report folder for it to make it more official and traced the umber hulk picture for the cover. I made the umber hulk the proper colors even though some of the umber hulks appearing in the module are orange. Don’t ask — I’m already embarrassed enough.
Eventually Dave and I learned that a new kid in the school, I’ll call him Rodney, also played D&D! Well, he wanted to learn anyway. He was and still is a goof ball and was enthusiastic about playing. As Dave and I were now experts at the game…hey stop laughing! Ahem, experts at the game, we would teach him. And where would he learn? TORTH!
You can see this train wreck coming, can’t you?
Not being one to make things easy on himself, and with the new AD&D Player’s Handbook in hand he decided to create a 1st level half-elf fighter/cleric named Pantalian. I, with the brand spanking new Monster Manual, was determined to try all of these new monsters.
The adventurers needed a reason, no matter how flimsy, to enter this dungeon. I reproduce it here, word for word, misspellings and all. On the word for word stuff I’ll insert my comments in italics. Because.
CONTENT WARNING — rape
Many years ago, when orcs ruled the countryside, a magic user came. He enslaved the orc tribe the green foot and made them build him a castle. The orcs were also forced to build new homes for poor people of the towns they destroyed. The castle was dug deep into the cliff side of a mountain. (So… it was a cave? A castle?)
This good magic user, ruled the countryside fairly the townspeople loved him dearly.
Many a cleric and Magic user came to him to study and for advise.
Soon Torth was getting old, and said he needed an heir. He adopted a boy by the name of Rascen. A few years later, the old wizard died, and left everything to Rascen.
Rascen, like his stepfather, was a good man. He trained to be a druid. (As one who lives in a fancy cave castle does.)
One day while holding the passover feast, the holy grail appeared. This brought pride to Rascen and his people. (Ummm. Yeah.)
While holding Court a beautiful girl came and stated a powerful knight was disturbing her. Her name was Rachel. Rascen himself slew the knight, and fell in love. (Fell in love with whom? The knight?) Soon Rascen asked Rachael to be his wife. She consented.
A few years, later a son was born. They named him Carnan. He grew up to be a magic-user after his parents died. But Carnan was evil. Carnan ruled harshly until one night, the castle mysteriously caught fire. He was said to be killed, along with other evil clerics and magic users. (Ok, the cave castle caught fire. HOW???)
The townspeople lived in harmony. A knight named Maskoth was appointed mayor. He ruled fairly.
One night, Maskoth disappeared, only to be found the next day, totally insane. He was babbling something about Liches or other evil. He died a few years later of mummy rot disese. This was the first evil. (ooh — scary!)
A sage said there would be six evils on the town. No one believed him. Soon a mysterious beggar came to town. A few days later he killed the captain of the watch. This was the second evil. (Damn mysterious beggars!)
After that, a good cleric came to town, and was told of the two evils and went to the castle, never to be seen again. A month later, bones were found in the woods near the castle. On them was a holy symbol. Scholars doubt this carnage was the cleric, but the people knew it was. This was the third evil. (Scholars studied this???)
The month after the finding of the bones, ghouls, mummies, zombies, wights, wraiths and ghosts plagued the town for one week, killing many. This was the fourth evil. (Okay — this is a town. By this point, there can’t be many people left, and those who survive, why did they stay?)
One night later, a girl named Josephine disappeared. She was found the next day, brutally murdered and raped. This was fifth evil. Now the windows of the castle are scarlet, as if a fire was burning inside. (I was a screwed up kid going for shock value. Also, what windows? There are no windows in the cave castle!)
A few days later all the infants and old men were killed. Evil swept the town. The chapel was burned! The monastery pillaged! This was the final evil. (Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria! Oh wait.)
Now the sage stated that evil will kill us all if it is not removed, and that the source of the evil was the castle. “A fighting man would be needed” stated the sage. That night he died of mysterious causes. (As one does in these tales.)
One night a merchant was passing on a road that is near the castle. He claims he saw a hooded figure in a rear window looking, staring out. The figure was all white, had glowing eyes, and burnt, shabby clothing. (WHAT WINDOWS?) That was last night. Go now to the castle and defeat the evil inside.
(Yeah. Go. Defeat…whatever.)
Pantalian and his NPCs died very quickly. He was reincarnated five times. He lasted longest as a troll. Then one day his character sheet vanished. Turns out someone we both knew tore it up and flushed it down the toilet. Rodney to this very day blames me for this and in revenge he and the other person destroyed my character’s painstakingly kept journal. However, I was not the culprit. Doesn’t matter, he still blames me.
How did Pantalian die so quickly? Well, here’s a few rooms, typed in exactly as scrawled back then, mistakes and all. The first room the characters will encounter after entering the castle would be room 17, which was a 20 ft. x 40 ft.
“The room is dingy. In the southeast corner is a 10 ft. circular iron cylinder. It has elvish runes on it and cannot be read except by the evil. They tell the history of evil. (That must’ve been small type!) When the door is closed, the lid pops open, orange smoke issues forth and 2 lemures pop out. 7 hp, 13 hp. 1 potion of flying, ring of skeleton, 900 sp.” (The ring would reduce the wearer to a skeleton instantly, no save, just dead.)
It was Pantalian and an NPC fighter. Lemures were devils with 3 HD and regeneration. Only blessed objects could kill them. Of course a brand new player wouldn’t know this, nor would they possess such an item. Or be aware of regeneration. So the lemures just kept coming and Rodney, being the jock type, wasn’t about to run away!
He created a second character specifically to go in and drag Pantalian’s body out. He was then resurrected and the second character became an NPC, a half elf fighter/magic-user. Neither lasted long. I decided the player needed help. I know! A magic weapon! I gave a gnoll a longsword +5 Defender. And again, Pantalian fell. His NPCs, as he now kept several, managed to kill the gnoll and get the sword for him. It helped against the night hag in the next room. Seriously.
The true shame of Torth was the way it was designed. This was supposed to be the castle of a good wizard but the map is a jumbled mess. Nowdays if I were to make that map I’d say chaos magic twisted it into its current form. Back then I just figured that dungeon maps were supposed to be mazelike. The Ruins of Undermountain proved me right. Again, I was a kid and hadn’t any experience writing.
Since that time D&D writing improved vastly. Jennell Jaquays introduced the concept of sandboxing an adventure with her Judge’s Guild pieces. Narrative plots began having some depth. Maps began to usually make sense. Also the players, me included, became more experienced along with the game as it developed.
Torth’s ending had the Heart of Evil which had absolutely no reason for existing except as a McGuffin for the character to reach and destroy. Of course in a linear sense it was in the last possible place.
“194 — The Heart of Evil. On the heavy door is a tarnished plaque that says “The Heart of Evil.” (As the major quest targets always do.) If the leader of the party is good, the door only opens on a one (if hit by an evil person.) (Huh?) When the door is open, the outcropping is seen. The two sides emit an orange yellow glow. This is the heart of evil in the castle, placed here by Balzebul. (Why???) This outcropping pulses, for it is alive. AC -2 Hit Dice 5. 21 hp. If the “heart” is threatened, it will summon 5 manes or other devils. When somebody is killed in this room, the heart grows brighter (that is only if a good person is slain, if an evil thing is slain in this room, it dims) Good slain — it gains 1 hp. Evil slain — loses 1 hp. (Fair enough but why only one?) If there is an evil person is in this room during melee, there is a 75% chance that he or she will turn against the good in the party. (Before you ask, there were many rooms that changed the character’s alignment. And every 13-14 year old kid plays chaotic neutral, no matter what their declared alignment.) When the heart is killed, all evil in the castle dies and disintegrates. A cherubim comes to warn the adventurers to leave, for in 12 hours the castle will crumble into dust. (When heart dies the yellow orange glow leaves) (It doesn’t help or anything. It just comes in, makes its grand proclamation and leaves.) Also if the heart is threatened, it will generate an evil energy field. If a good character goes in, they lose 1-4 hp per round. (Oh, by the way, it has protection from good sort of.) 1000 exp for killing the heart.”
Sigh. When I wasn’t available to DM Dave would DM for me. Eventually, near the end of the first level a magical slide appeared taking whatever character Rodney was playing by that time directly to the island where the Heart of Evil was. No devils popped up but he had a major time beating on the thing before it died. And so ended the only time Torth was ever played, with over two thirds of it avoided.
Why write a column about this aside from the editor asking? I write a lot now between this, my monthly column at Transgender Forum, my blog and other things. Whatever a person creates, be it art of some kind, writing, song or whatever they leave a piece of themselves in it. That’s why no two artist’s works are alike or no two authors (not counting intentional style stealing.) Torth took me quite some time to write during a tumultuous time in my life.
It was around this time that my inner demons, which I later understood to be my misplaced gender identity, really began to plague me. Also around this time I started studying martial arts as I was tired of the beatings I received at the hands of bullies. Add to that I was a late bloomer and while all the other kids were hitting puberty, I wasn’t. I dreaded puberty as I knew it would make me exactly what U didn’t want to be: a man. All of this and more all swirled in my head. My only real escape then was gaming, especially D&D.
As I wrote above, when someone writes they bring part of themselves and that includes D&D adventures. I have since that time written over 100 D&D adventures for my players or for others to run. I haven’t read Torth since, well, 1980 or 81. I’ve kept it in my pile of D&D papers or with my modules since then and it’s moved with me many times. I started reading it for this piece and I had to stop. Yes, some of what’s written is Ed Wood bad or worse. That’s not what stopped me, nor was it the poor penmanship, as it was all written in longhand (in pencil!).
I stopped because what I read was a howl of anguish (cliché, I know) from a child who knew they were different, couldn’t understand how or why and whose life was changing and out of control. I was lashing out at whatever caused me pain. I can tell when Rodney started playing. Rodney was a goofball and is still a great friend but he was also a jock. He would become a champion wrestler, attend VMI and serve as an officer in the Army like all men in his family before him. He was everything I wasn’t. Unconsciously, I lashed out at him through the module. There were many times in Torth where the characters were magically transformed, just as I wished I could be.
So yes, Torth was a train wreck but so was I. In many ways I’m still that child struggling against all I am. However I now understand who I am and have the power to change what I don’t like. Rodney and I still play D&D every other weekend on Roll20, as he lives in Michigan. And he still brings up Torth every session. Other players live in Philly, Maine and one here in State College. They’re going through Keep on the Borderlands — my selection. It reminds me of a far more innocent time when gaming was just gaming, yet also a lifeline to other worlds. Sometimes an orc is just an orc after all.