AD&D’s Freedom and the Curse of the Media Tie-In

Released in 1991, the Dark Sun setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a revelation. More than any other setting up to that point, it showcased the way D&D could encompass many different kinds of fantasy while still remaining true to the game. It introduced a metal-poor desert world where survival was as much as a challenge as fighting orcs. It provided a new twist on standard D&D races, including tribalistic halflings and desert-running elves. Drawing more from the Dune series than The Lord of the Rings, it showed how broad D&D’s horizons could go.

If you want a great example of the creative energy that infused AD&D 2nd edition, check out the original Dark Sun boxed set. And then, if you want an example of how bad its adventures could get, check out the setting’s first module, Freedom.

The Problem with Media Tie-Ins

Freedom’s biggest problem is that it existed as a media tie-in first and an RPG adventure second. Coming from an era when TSR madly wanted to cash in on the success of the Dragonlance series, the adventure kicked off a series of modules designed to allow players to run through the events of the Prism Pentad novels that began concurrently with the release of the campaign setting. Unlike the Dragonlance adventures that allowed the players to take the role of the lead characters in an epic story, though, Freedom focused on new characters who had little to do but sit around and watch as the novel’s characters did all the awesome stuff.

Prism Pentad

Part of the problem comes from the fact that Dark Sun as a role-playing product wasn’t designed around the idea of epic fantasy. The setting was brutal, encouraging players to make up a character “tree” of four characters so they had somebody new waiting when their current hero died. Tracking water and portioning out rations was effectively a mini-game, as the environment was often as much a danger as the monsters within it.

The Prism Pentad novels, on the other hand, focused on high-level heroic adventure. The heroes of those stories incited slave revolts, hunted for artifacts, conspired to become demigods, and wound up killing the Dragon of Tyr, which had been presented as the biggest baddie in the campaign setting.

The novels and the RPG setting simply did not jive, despite both being written by Dark Sun’s creator Troy Denning. As a result, Freedom winds up as an ironic title. Not only do the PCs spend most of the adventure as slaves, but they also rarely make any choices that actually matter.

No-Win Scenarios

Freedom casts the player characters as slaves in the city-state of Tyr in the days leading up to a sorcerer-king’s overthrow and the city’s eventual independence. It’s not a bad concept, but the fact that the PCs don’t get to win their own independence is problematic. An even bigger issue is the fact that the heroes face deliberately unfair encounters to force them into slavery to begin with.

Freedom Gladiator Fight

The adventure could have begun with the PCs already serving as slaves, similar to the way that “A Little Knowledge,” the adventure which came with the boxed set, did things. Starting in media res with the PCs in a rough situation that they need to escape from is a time-honored tradition. Forcing them into a no-win situation, on the other hand, is a non-starter for many groups.

As Freedom’s opening pages describe, “The purpose of the Part One encounters is to capture the player characters: the later stages of Freedom take place in the slave pens of Tyr, and thus the players must be captured in Part One.”

The module goes on to state, “Because the PCs must be captured, the Part One encounters are unfair. One or more PCs will be prisoners after each encounter. No player actions short of the miraculous will save the PCs from eventual capture, arrest, or enslavement. But who ever said Athas was fair?”

Again, Freedom is the first official Dark Sun adventure outside of the introductory module that came with the boxed set. So TSR basically introduced the setting with an adventure that explicitly said the game was rigged against the players. This unfortunately becomes a running theme in the rest of the module as well.

No Meaningful Choices

The second part of Freedom consist of the PCs struggling to find enough food and water to avoid dying in the slave pits. This is a good illustration of how brutal Athas is, but it’s also notable how many times the adventure tells the DM to make sure the PCs simply can’t win. A read through this section pulls up the following instructions:

  • Referring to an elven thief who steals water from the PCs, presented without stats: “Ramachil should be too tough for the PCs to defeat.”
  • In reference to somebody who tries to steal food from a singled out PC: “Five human thugs at his back add punch (literally) to this request. Clearly this gang of six has bullied more than a few weaklings for their goods. If the PC refuses, the thugs beat him senseless (at 5-to-1 there is little point running the fight).”
  • When an NPC informer threatens to point them out as conspirators to the guards: “Tell the player the consequences of being fingered by the informer—before the next sunset, four guards will murder the PC.”

Dark Sun Slaver

The general idea behind these encounters is to emphasize that the PCs can’t just fight their way out of danger. This could be a good way to challenge combat-focused players, but in practice it just limits player choice. There are no alternative ways to “win” an encounter provided. Thus, the first third of this adventure captures and tortures PCs with no chance for them to take control of the story themselves.

The heroes can escape in Part Three, but only through the actions of other NPCs. Either an allied mage or a demented sorcerer-king can give the adventurers freedom. However, even if these people do what the PCs can’t do themselves, the heroes wind up back in the slave pits, either as spectators or slaves, as the adventure’s climax approaches. In other words, nothing they do matters – the adventure makes the players spectators instead of active participants.

The Novel is a Requirement

The introduction to Part Four of the adventure reads, “Part Four functions differently from previous parts of Freedom. Part Four describes the epic scenes of the Verdant Passage as a backdrop for the PCs’ own revolt and escape to freedom.”

Beyond the Prism Pentad
Luckily, a setting update a few years later filled the players in on all the cool stuff they missed.

What is The Verdant Passage? It’s the first book of the Prism Pentad, and it’s where all the real adventure happens. The PCs are forced to watch gladiatorial games until Sorcerer-King Kalak tries to kill them with a magic ritual, at which point the heroes of the novel save the day.

This section of the module even recommends making new characters for the players to control, as their heroes have nothing to do with the plot unless they are actively fighting in the pits. If the PCs got free in the previous part, they’re required to sit through the events as spectators or, as the text says:

“If a PC remains recalcitrant about avoiding the games, you can do one of two things—let him hang out in the city while everybody else finishes the adventure or capture him again. You can plan this capture before or during the games, whichever you prefer. If captured, the PC is whipped and sent to the games with everyone else.”

In my opinion, both of these options are equally bad. Either the player doesn’t get to participate in the adventure or she does but has no control over what’s going on. Either way, it takes the game out of role-playing game.

The biggest problem with the tie-in to The Verdant Passage is that, unless everybody has read the novel, nobody has any reason to care about what’s going on. None of the novel’s heroes made an appearance earlier in the adventure, and the villain Kalak only appears in a minor way. There’s no emotional connection for the players – they’re very much spectators in someone else’s story.

The Adventure Starts at the Very End

The ultimate goal of Freedom is not to earn said freedom, but rather to survive the events of The Verdant Passage. While the novel’s heroes defeat Kalak, the PCs are stuck in the midst of a magical ritual that drains the life out of those around them. Having an adventure where survival is the name of the game works well for the brutal Dark Sun setting. Unfortunately, it’s the only part of the adventure that actually matters.

Kalak's Demise
The module even has a visual aid to show somebody else killing the big bad.

While the PCs’ decisions earlier in the adventure may give them a few allies, nothing they have done up to that point actually affects the story. Part Five is the only part of the adventure where the PCs face meaningful consequences for their actions. Even if they effected a brilliant escape plan previously, they wind up in the exact same position as somebody who spent the entire adventure mixing mud.

Even at their most basic, RPGs are built on meaningful consequences and tactical decisions. You head into a dungeon and find a pack of goblins. If you fight them, you use up resources that might be better used later on. If you sneak past the, they present an obstacle later when you try to leave the dungeon. Befriending them probably avoids both negative consequences, but has the lowest chance of success and gives up the advantage of surprise. Each choice has a trade-off, and each decision the players make affects the adventure’s outcome.

Part Five of Freedom is the only place where these tactical decisions and meaningful consequences exist. Do the PCs make a break for it themselves or try to rally the slaves? Do they try to rush the guards and steal weapons? If somebody stumbles, do they go back for them and thus risk their own lives? Unfortunately, this bit of excitement only comes at the very end of the adventure (Part Six just informs the PCs of the outcome of The Verdant Passage). By this point, the players may be so jaded that they half-ass their escape attempt, expecting another unwinnable fight and a smiting blow from the plot hammer.

The Significance of Freedom

The point of all this isn’t to rag on a module that’s nearly 30 years old or to disparage the creative team behind it. (The listed author for the module, David “Zeb” Cook, was the architect of AD&D 2nd edition and the author of such gems as Oriental Adventures. His reputation is solid, even despite this module.)

Dark Sun

The point of my rant is twofold. First, I’m trying to reinforce the importance of player choice in adventures. The DM gets to come up with the plot of an adventure, true, but the actual story is a group work with contributions from everybody involved. It’s hard to walk that tightrope with an RPG, especially a published adventure that can’t anticipate every player action. However, player agency is needed to make the game entertaining.

The second point of this discussion is to illustrate how hard it is to do a media tie-in for an RPG adventure. Freedom isn’t the first or last attempt to connect a published adventure with the events of a novel line, and TSR never really got it right. They probably had their greatest success with the Dragonlance modules, which actually had the players take on the role of the heroes from the novels. The Avatar Trilogy from the Forgotten Realms had the PCs form a deeper connection to the main characters of the novels, but also stripped player agency away while presenting numerous rigged encounters to keep the plot from getting derailed.

In that regard, Freedom is at least an admirable effort. It gives the PCs their own thing to do, but unfortunately forces them along too narrow of a path. The frequent forced captures and unwinnable combats are also a major problem, as most players I know would rather have their characters die in battle than admit defeat.

Freedom’s follow-up module, Road to Urik, actually succeeds in many ways where this adventure fails. In Road to Urik, the newly freed PCs become allies of the novel’s heroes and help to forge a new political scene amid the upheaval following Kalak’s death. However, even that adventure remains at its strongest when the storyline drifts away from the events of the Prism Pentad.

Given the popularity of AD&D novels in the 1980s and 1990s, a more savvy company than TSR might have really turned the brand into a franchise to be reckoned with. TSR wanted to make AD&D a living thing, where players could use the novels, comics, and other tie-ins to make them feel like they were just one part of a larger world.

It would have been quite awesome if they had figured a way to make it all work out. Unfortunately, we usually got forgettable adventures like the ironically-named Freedom instead.


Images: Wizards of the Coast

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