D&D Review – O1: The Gem and the Staff

There are many unusual things about O1: The Gem and the Staff, but perhaps the strangest is that it consists of two, linked 30-minute adventures designed for a single player and a DM. It was originally used as a tournament adventure at Wintercon VII in 1978 and saw limited publication there by Metro Detroit Gamers as Quest for the Fazzlewood, but it was re-released by TSR as part of their Basic D&D line in 1983.

The original idea of the adventure in a tournament was that the DM and player would swap for the second adventure, and points would be allocated for how well each progressed in the adventure; the point-scoring system is given in the text.

The economics of the adventure are not favourable to it: it provides two players with a total of 1 hour of entertainment before it has been completed. As most other products of its size would provide entertainment for 6-10 players lasting 6 hours or more, it really isn’t that surprising that a line of One-on-One adventures never took off. In fact, the Fighting Fantasy game line, where the book takes the place of the Dungeon Master, actually do the job far more effectively. The role of the Dungeon Master here is quite limited, with many actions being scripted. There are a few areas where having a Dungeon Master is an advantage, but – given the time limitations – any extended role-playing with the inhabitants of the adventure is likely to cause you to fail.

Both adventures are written for a pregenerated, 8th-level thief character, Eric the Bold. In the first adventure he is blackmailed to steal a gem from a wizard; in the second adventure that wizard gets him to steal a staff from another rival as recompense for his first theft (or as the price of his freedom if he was captured in the first adventure). Each adventure, as is common for tournament adventures, is quite linear, and although the potential for combat exists in both, most battles can be avoided; just as well, because a lone thief is quite vulnerable.

Stylistically, the adventures draw on tales of high adventure where not everything has to make sense: Why does the wizard have a giant serving him? Why not! It’s a style that is somewhat out of favour now, but you can find in the works of Vance, Leiber, Fletcher and Pratt, and some Moorcock. The wondrous is enough – it’s magic! (The term “screwball fantasy” may be appropriate).

Actually overcoming the challenges of the adventure requires some thinking, but that’s something that should be welcomed. There’s one trap that is quite unfair, but as it’s also the primary link between the two adventures, so I can’t be too unhappy about it. (It can be avoided; it just seems unlikely that the player could avoid it given how the adventure works). It might be initially surprising how little is actually overcome by using thief skills (such as open lock, find traps), but an adventure relying only on those would be extremely boring; making simple dice rolls isn’t entertaining, and the risk of failure from a single roll when there isn’t another way past

The Gem and the Staff comes with two 16-page books, one with the adventures and one with the maps – drawn in large scale so that the players can actually put cardboard figures (also included) on the map to show what they’re doing. The art is quite good and I was rather happy to see one picture showing Eric the Bold under the effects of one of the curses he might suffer!

Ultimately, The Gem and the Staff is an interesting experiment, although I find the format it uses is just too limiting – especially given the space given to maps. TSR produced one other adventure in the “O” series before abandoning it. UK5 (1984) is also a one-on-one adventure, would return to in two other adventures in the mid-80s, before they produced eight “Head-to-Head” adventures (the HHQ line of Fighter’s Challenge, etc.) in the early and mid-90s.

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