There are certain adventures that are not regarded well in the community. Some are quite decent adventures that, nonetheless, are written in a style that doesn’t match the tastes of the time. Others are just plain bad. The view of the community on what makes a good adventure can change over time. And sometimes an event takes place that brings an otherwise forgotten adventure to prominence.
Ten years ago, the poster Quasqueton started a thread on EN World about what he described as the “Worst TSR adventure module(s) ever published“. The adventure he chose was Carl Smith’s The Forest Oracle, the second in the N (Novice) line, published in 1984. The thread proved to be one of the most hilarious D&D-related threads I’ve ever read on the internet, and made me very aware of the deficiencies in this product.
What Quasqueton started that day was the process that elevates things like “Plan 9 from Outer Space” to prominence. There may indeed be worse adventures that were published by TSR, but they’re unlikely to be as amusing. The Forest Oracle sits in that place where people can decide “it’s so bad, it’s good!” At least it is for the DM, who gets to see the tortured prose and leaps of logic. A group of players will more likely see an odd, disjoint but still competent adventure, little knowing what the DM has done to fix things.
Despite being an adventure in the Novice series, the adventure doesn’t support level 1 characters, only level 2-4. Well, at least it has prerolled characters. Nine of them, because that was the standard size of adventuring parties in those days, although the adventure doesn’t actually mention how many characters should be on the quest.
The adventure plotline is quite simple: the players come across an area of the world (the “Downs”) which are suffering from a magical blight. The local elderly mage sends them on a quest to find a druid who can fix things, and so the players have a number of encounters on their way to the druid. Then the druid sends them on another quest, and with the completion of that quest, gives them the cure to the blight. Then all that remains is that the party return to the Down to apply the cure…
Although The Forest Oracle is rightly pilloried for the quality of its writing, for me the most shocking thing is how linear it is. The wilderness map is basically irrelevant – each encounter occurs in order and the players can’t deviate from the path without wrecking the adventure. The “dungeon” of the adventure – an underground tunnel through a mountain – is bizarrely handled. You would expect from the map that the players would get a chance to avoid each encounter. Not a bit of it – each time there’s an encounter opportunity, the adventure assumes the players travel hundreds of feet down the side tunnel to reach the encounter before returning to the main passageway.
The main tunnel goes northeast for 2,000′ and turns due east for 2,000′. A side tunnel extends to the southeast and proceeds for 1500′ before opening into a cavern. The floor of the cavern is covered with murky water.
– Description of Area 6.
It’s astonishing, and not in a good way. I’m not opposed to linear adventures – indeed, for non-exploration wilderness adventures, it’s the preferred style. However, the design of the tunnel encounters is very strange.
So, how are the actual encounters? What they do well is evoke the pastoral feeling of this adventure, contrasted with the darker beings of the forest. It’s a gentle fantasy setting, without the harder (or horrific) touches common in many other adventures. There’s a good variety of encounters, and if it were better written and edited, it would be much better thought of.
A group of seven men approaches. They are following the road east, and are making good time, neither tarrying nor running. Their faces are expressionless. One is dressed as a cleric of some sort, and another is dressed as a traveling drummer. The others could be peasants or serfs going from one location to another for the harvest season. Each carries some sort of weapon. It is plain that they are not soldiers by their haphazard way of walking. They do not seem to be joking loudly or singing as they advance.
Steve “Vestige” of RPGgeek nailed it in the title of his review of The Forest Oracle: ‘Does the N stand for “Novice” or “Nitwit”?‘ The first of the “Novice” series of adventures, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God was not particularly an adventure for novices of any kind, especially the DM, but Carl Smith’s The Forest Oracle assumes a level of stupidity on the part of the DM and players that I’ve not seen before or since. The adventure over-explains encounters, and has nonsensical explanations for events.
You have a halfling innkeeper who hasn’t realised wererats are robbing his guests. Orcs who capture the characters, don’t strip them of their armour, and then give them an axe and expect them not to escape. And the brigands of the encounter above, who are neither tarrying nor running.
The thing is, there are times when it almost works…
Ahead lies a clearing filled with ruins. Rising out of the ruins is a single tower. A few roof tiles are missing, but of all four towers to this castle, only this one has survived. The other four lie crumbled in useless heaps of stone. Nothing stirs within the compound, which is covered with weeds and rubble. One pitted and scarred story remains of the main keep. The east keep wall rises another 60 feet and ends in a jagged edge. Great stone stairs support the eastern wall from the inside, but no longer lead anywhere.
A massive gatehouse, only the front wall intact, faces the road. A drawbridge crosses a moat overgrown with weeds. Over the arch of the drawbridge is a lintel inscribed with the word KARN.
There’s a lyrical, almost fairy-tale feeling to a lot of the encounters in the adventure; in some ways it reminds me of The Hobbit. A jealous nymph who has enchanted her lover with a sleep spell she can’t break and begs the help of the players? That’s a really good encounter, but then you realise that merely shaking her sleeping beau will awaken him. Why couldn’t she do that? At that point common sense slips away and begins dancing to the sound of accursed flutes.
The Forest Oracle could have been better. It should have been better. But somehow, in the TSR of 1984, basic procedures such as editing and thinking about an adventure were absent. I’m still not convinced it’s the worst adventure TSR ever published, but at least when it’s bad, it’s hilariously incompetent.
A good DM could fix a lot of the problems with this adventure and make it into something a group of new players would quite enjoy; they’d never know what a close call they had. However, it’s probably worth trying something else. It’s not like you’re lacking for choice! All-in-all, The Forest Oracle is a mess. At least it has nice art.