Stuffed Crocodile

Mazes, Martians, Mead

[The Dark Eye] B1 Im Wirtshaus zum Schwarzen Keiler (Black Boar Inn)

Cover of Wirtshaus zum Schwarzen Keiler

Here’s a thing I wanted to see for a while: I have this pet theory that German-language roleplaying and roleplaying in English-speaking countries have different characteristics not only because, well, different cultures, but also because German-speaking audiences got into the whole fantasy roleplaying at a very specific point in the development of the hobby, and have largely worked from there instead.

What I mean is this: Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye) long has been the main roleplaying game in Germany, in a way that Dungeons and Dragons has been in the English-speaking world. People get introduced to roleplaying via DSA, and many never feel the need to change into different genres or systems, even though these exist. And this has been something people have bemoaned for decades.

DSA was not the first RPG in Germany (that was Empires of Magira/Midgard). It wasn’t even the second (Tunnels and Trolls was translated by the authors of DSA before). But thanks to some adept marketing and the collaboration with Schmidt Spiele (back then one of the biggest boardgame manufacturers in Germany) and Droemer-Knaur (one of the biggest publishing houses), it found it’s way into toy stores and department stores all over West Germany.

This isn’t to say that it wasn’t inspired by D&D. It was. In fact the authors Ulrich Kiesow and Werner Fuchs had already translated multiple rulebooks and boxed sets into German and were negotiating with Schmidt Spiele about releasing them. It just turned out that TSR wanted more money than Schmidt was comfortable with, and so they were contracted to instead make their own game that would “blow D&D of the market”, which it did.

D&D did get published, and then for the next decade or more lived a rather obscure existence in the shadow of big brother DSA.

Illustration by Bryan Talbot

DSA appeared in 1984, ten years after DnD originally came out. The original offering was the Abenteuer-Basis-Spiel (The basic rules), Die Werkzeuge des Meisters (Tools of the Game Master), and four adventure modules: Im Wirtshaus zum Schwarzen Keiler (Black Boar Inn), Der Wald ohne Wiederkehr (The Forest of No Return), Die Sieben Magischen Kelche (The Seven Magical Goblets), and Das Schiff der Verlorenen Seelen (The Ship of Lost Souls). And from the beginning the whole setup was based on modules, or as the DSA terminology called them: adventures.

There is a difference between both terms, and I think it’s quite clear where the German version comes from. These aren’t location based scenarios like Keep on the Borderlands, these are specific scenarios with plotlines a la Ravenloft and other Hickman offerings. Sure, there are dungeons (which even today are loathed in German roleplaying), but they aren’t actually that good, and there is railroading, and while there is a lot of potential for sandboxes the adventures all are scripted and predetermined in a lot of ways.

And I want to have a look at where DSA started with that and how it developed.

I also was thinking about using them with my kids at one point, so I was trying to look through them to see if they are appropriate.

By way, there are a lot of adventures for DSA. A LOT. The B-line (for Basis/Basic) went up to number 25, but the A line (for Ausbau/Advanced) went up to number 213 (which was for fourth edition), before switching to a new numbering (the VA line for 5th seems to be up to number 59 by now), and there were multiple sidelines. I am going through the beginnings though, so at first I will go through the B’s, and then add some A-line adventures in when chronologically appropriate.

In Black Boar Inn by Werner Fuchs (1984)

The first of the bunch.

According to Fuchs this was written by him under time pressure together with the core rules and the second adventure. Everything had to be ready by Christmas so the publisher was able to present all of it at next year’s SPIEL in Nuremberg. Altogether he had about 2 weeks of time for that. This is coincidentally similar to how long Gygax had to write Keep on the Borderlands. But Gygax already had been creating, playing, and refereeing the game for years while Fuchs had not, and this is noticeable.

It doesn’t help that it seems they did not understand Keep on the Borderlands. Fuchs actually mentioned Castle Amber and Palace of the Silver Princess as much more of an inspiration, both of which have a much more streamlined plot than Keep. When looking into it it becomes clear that what Kiesow and Fuchs saw in the game was not the sandboxy game feeling of early DnD, it was the combination of storytelling and improv theatre that interested them. But… they still were working in the constraints of the hobby, so there had to be dungeons. Which the heroes were forced into by a railroad.

Illustration by Bryan Talbot

The plot: the heroes are travelling from the port city of Havena to the town of Angbar. During a rest just before crossing the mountains they stop at the Black Boar Inn in the small barony of Gratenfels. There the local baron shows up, then throws them into the wine cellar for not being able to repeat a nonsense verse. Freed by the bar maid they escape through a tunnel into a cave complex/mine where the baron is using slave labor and monster overseers to mine silver and mint coins. After some typical dungeon shenanigans including orcs and lizardmen, enslaved dwarves, and other things, they escape.

That’s it. There isn’t much to this story, it doesn’t make much sense, there’s no proper resolution except escape, and the baron never gets his comeuppance. (unless the Meister decides to add something, and that is never discussed in the module)

The plot is stupid.

One would have thought there might have been a better way to throw them in the wine cellar than that stupid doggerel they have to repeat or be branded as traitors, BUT at least this brings across that the baron is a nutcase and stays in mind.

What happens if some person actually manages to repeat it properly? Dunno. Don’t care. The heroes HAVE to end in the cellar. They also HAVE to escape through the secret tunnel.

There’s about half a dozen problems with that and we haven’t touched the first room of the dungeon yet.

The dungeon is… not great.

A weird collection of stuff and monsters. Not quite the worst of dungeons I have seen in Dungeons and Dragons, but also not good. The place is a mine in which a variety of humanoids use slaves to mine and mint silver for Graf Greifax.

Illustration by Bryan Talbot

The best thing about it is that the heroes go in blind. They end up in a room and now have to find their way using only touch. On the other hand considering this is the very first adventure many would have encountered this also might be a rather big ask.

The adventure lacks playtesting, of course, but it has some ideas how to ease new GMs into the whole “how to GM” thing. Adventure text here is in three parts, “Common Information” that can be read aloud, “Special Information” that can be gained with even just cursory investigation, and black-marked “Master Information” that contains further information and should not directly been given to players. It’s clear, even if not remarked upon, that this form of presentation is intended for ease of use: PCs come across a new room, you can read the first text, they decide what to investigate, giving you time to read the second category and the third one. I’m not sure if this is still used in the current 5th edition of DSA, but this is the way DSA adventures were presented all the way to 4th edition in the early 2000s at least.

What didn’t stick around were the fanciful names for other parts of the adventure. The maps were called Plan des Schicksals (Plan of Fate), which sounded narmy and fit right into the rest of the system with the Dokument der Stärke (document of strength i.e. the character sheet) and the Buch der Macht (Book of Power i.e. the referee manual).

It was the early times of the hobby, and the game wasn’t just playing to your average gamer, it was playing to kids, and to the adult executives from Schmidt Spiele who thought they knew what kids wanted.

Curiosities:

  • the new monsters in the book also contain “Höhlenschrate“. These are described as dwarf-sized Schrate living in caves. This is the only appearance they have. Later descriptions of the group of Schrate (which in DSA-lore also contains the equivalents of treants, trolls, and yetis) has Grottenschrate (the equivalent of bugbears), but these are at least twice the size. This particular monster just disappeared.
  • Baron Greifax never got his comeuppance and outside of some non-canonical adventures, never was properly mentioned again until 30 years later in the timeline. The barony of Gratenfels in early sourcebooks was described as lordless until a replacement was found. What exactly happened there never was explained. He was later established to suffer insanity, but that was decades after, both in the real world and the lore.
  • The adventure received a sequel about 14 years and nearly a hundred adventure modules later, in 1998’s A84 Rückkehr zum Schwarzen Keiler (Return to Black Boar Inn). This book was an anthology of adventures with homages and connections to older classic adventures. In the Black Boar adventure the whole complex of caves under the inn was given a more reasonable explanation that fit into the established background/metastory of the time. Come to think of it, this was an offering for retro fans already, and it came out in ’98. That was 24 years ago. I am getting old.
  • The player characters by the way are generated after the game already has started. Unlike basically every other starter adventure I have ever read they also are given a specific background: all of them are from Havena. Havena being the only other established part of the setting so far, it was the setting of the sample scenario from the starter box and would become the subject of the first sourcebook.
  • The book was one of those that also were translated into different languages. There are Dutch, French, and Italian versions of this adventure. I’m not sure how successful these lines were.

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