[Review] B3 Palace of the Silver Princess (DnD Basic); Enigma

[Adventure]
Palace of the Silver Princess (1981)
Jean Wells (TSR)
Levels 1 – 3

Palace of the Silver Princess is the next entry in the thus far excellent B series for Basic DnD and is often overlooked, lacking the fame of B1, B2 and B4. For shame say I, for while it is not without its flaws and ideosyncracies, B3 manages to evoke a type of otherwordly mystery that is somewhat lacking in B1 and B2 (with the exception of the Temple of Evil Chaos).

A big problem with B3 is that it follows the next logical step in expanding the scope of a module but does a terrible job of explaining what it is doing and why. B1 was a dungeon, B2 a series of mini-dungeons, a tiny wilderness map and a home-base and B3 seeks, quite amibitiously to provide us with an entire map of the region, complete with settlements, enchanted forests and NPCs. The problem is that almost all of these seem to exist in a sort of vacuum, serving as a mere backdrop for the adventure proper and leaving one with a poor impression of what to do with them.

But I get ahead of myself. B3 takes place in the titular Palace of the Silver Princess. The backstory does a good job at setting the mood, tone and atmosphere of fairy-tale strangeness and wonder. Long ago a beautiful princess lived in her palace of marble, beloved by all. The valley dwarves loved her so much they cut a ruby the size of an apple and gifted it to her. During a ball (when else), a mysterious guest appears, coveting the Gem. Weeks later a Red Dragon comes and lays waste to the valley. What happened to the Princess and the Gem, men know not.

Part of the appeal of B3 is its fey atmosphere, which permeates the entire work and is noticeable in little details. There is an ambiguity to the module that prevents it from coming across as mundane or banal (a problem with many other DnD modules, even when they concern fantastic things). There is a hint that this “guest” and the princess daughter might be a wandering Tinker NPC but it is never spelled out.

This trend continues throughout the module. Monsters are new and appropriately strange, illusions permeate the ruined palace of marble, a person lying in wait turns out to be only a shadow, things are seldom what they seem in Palace of the Silver Princess.

The map of the region is beautiful in the manner of the maps you find in the front of fantasy-paperbacks, but a scale IS provided. Silver Princess is originally placed “in the land of the princes of Glantri” but would later be placed in Karameikos in the official canon, being tucked away in some place where the Immortals walk and the normal rules do not apply. And appropriately so, the region is a strange place, ruled by the evil mysandrist Baroness D’hmis and specked here and there with tiny villages. Strange, and Fey places like the evil Abbadon Woods, the magic-disrupting Misty Swamp, haunted by creatures of Coloured Mist and the Thunder Mountains perpetually stricken with lightning.

Each location is given a paragraph of description and is immediately evocative. It is perhaps a pity Mystara would go in a different direction with their campaign setting, preferring a more grounded (and at times, lamentably mundane GAZ ) take. The only problem with this section is that it is only peripherally connected with the Palace of the Silver Princess, and could potentially be replaced with anything else.

The module vaguely informs us of the purpose of having persistent NPCs, noting that some campaigns do entirely without them [1]. Almost half a page is spent on the tinker, but much time is wasted in the description of his cart and other trappings, which should have been spent on his direct and immediate uses and possibly some hooks. Instead we leave this section little wiser, with only some vague hints of an overarching plot and the idea that we could possibly use this enigmatic seller of pots and pans and his daughter to dispense information and quests. A paltry offering.

The Dungeon proper is captivating but uneven, and the blank spaces and empty rooms that dot it here and there are all the more glaring. The nominal purpose of these is to give the GM some room to make it their own, but my recommendation would be to leave these mostly empty of monsters and treasure, for they provide but brief breaks in the palace overall, which feels crowded otherwise. Indeed, the use of the prerolled random encounters provided later in the book here is almost a waste, the use of something so mundane as Orcs or Berserkers seeming out of place against a backdrop of living bubbles, the unlikely Decapus, blood-drinking plants and the grotesque three-headed Ubues.

The map is as nonstandard as the rest of the work, forming what is essentially a loop with a series of passageways branching off like the roots of trees. An upper level may be accessed by means of stairs, with an additional guard tower inhabited by Lawful translucent beings who will readily slay any non Lawful creatures as an excellent if bizarre addition.

The room descriptions suffer at times from the curse of the house of Gygax: Excessive verbosity, though never to the garish levels of excess B1 could at times sink too. The writing is effective and evocative for its time. The encounters are superb, easily surpassing the comparatively mundane efforts of B1 and B2. An enchanted blade that is wielded against the characters for several rounds by an illusionary warrior, an ordinary housecat that can turn into great cat for 10 rounds per day, statues of crystal and emrald coming to life to lay waste the attacker, the cleric Catharamus who is said to be kind but who is actually not, the corpses of the mysterious wolf soldiers, who are stand-ins for some distant and mysterious faction of the GM’s design.

A lot of good design is present in B3, like the explicit descriptions of the motivations of the inhabitants (which is excellent), the presence of ambiguously motivated NPCs and the strategic use of traps that serve as hindrances rather then instant death (there is one save or die trap present in the dungeon, which is a rotten shame if you ask me).

In regards to treasure, B3 should get credit not for its panoply of gilded princesses’  apparel or coterie of enchanted items, some of them new and almost all of them subtly nonstandard (like, say, a throwing knife+2 but only when thrown) but for actually delivering the goods. An apple sized ruby, worth 10.000 gp, to cap off the search. The only problem is that you have to fight your way past two ghosts to obtain it. There are enchanted items here that have little to no game purpose but are merely wonderful, like a singing teacup or an Ice Harp that quells the hearts of beasts and monsters if played on by a talented harpist.

With regards to lethality B3 pulls little punches, going so far as to mention that it is far more a module for 2-3rd level characters then 1st levels. While a save or die trap is absent, it is quite possible to get fucked up by the various new inhabitants and the tribe of Ubues inhabiting the second level is likely to provide a lethal challenge to the PCs if they are not careful, well-armed, aided by others or excessively lucky.

Likewise, one cannot mention it without going over its bestiary of unique monsters, almost a dozen in number, each one lovingly equipped with a paragraph on its habits and evocative of the type of creatures one can readily expect to encounter in a Gordon R. Dickinson or Tanith Lee novel. They succeed because they are subtly not beholden to Gygaxian Naturalism, instead seeming strange and off. The grotesque, many-headed Ubues that sacrifice their children if there are born too many are more compelling then the paltry shades of Sauron’s Legions DnD tends to trot out as placefiller antagonists. The Golden-maned Marble Snake would more readily be encountered in Wonderland then some forest of Faerun or Greyhawk. Amoeboid things, animate bubbles that seek to drown men in their pools, strange animal hybrids and living plants inhabit the Palace of the Silver Princess.

If B3 does anything really well it is to step away, boldly, from the genericism of B1 and to an extent B2 and instead provide us with a rich tapestry of NPCs with a background, items with a history and all manner of colorful and memorable encounters. It hammers home exactly how much mood and atmosphere can add to a module. It is a vision of a Basic module catalog that could have been, each outing filled with wonderful new creatures and otherworldly splendor. Instead later modules would eventually fall prey to the standardization and genericism that has often been bemoaned as the death knell of Big Corporation DnD.

B3’s tragic failure is that it failed utterly to communicate and crow loudly its own merits, and is thus remembered mostly as an oddity in the catalogue. Jean Wells, sadly, would not write another module. Even today it sings loudly the praises of a DnD that is not set-piece combats, autistic lists of identical damage-dealing spells and the spending of Reaction to Gain Bonuses to Movement Speeds, but a DnD that makes people imagine themselves in some fare-off land, of wonder and sorcery, where fist-sized rubies beckon in some place of great beauty and magic now ruined and inhabited by evil things.

Sing thine song oh Princess. And make us weep for a beauty now lost.

7.5 out of 10.

UPDATE: As Yolande d’Bar points out correctly, this module was written and published in 1980 and recalled the same year because of presumably risque content (charging Erol Otus with putting S&M in the text). It was later put out again and rewritten by Tom Moldvay, keeping little of its original content. This review concerns the original.

 

[1] I can’t think of any long-running game I played in that did not at one time or another have some sort of persistent characters, if only to save the GM the bother of coming up with new ones.

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10 thoughts on “[Review] B3 Palace of the Silver Princess (DnD Basic); Enigma

    1. In your estimation, would you say Wells transcends the author level 0 reserved for all module writers and forum bores with no exception or is she still condemned to the abyss on account of her pink socks and ssensual ne touché pas?

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      1. Sorry old boy, I was checking to see if you were an old friend and poet, who occasionally deigns to post here under various aliases. No harm done (and welcome to Age of Dusk).

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  1. Regarding upper level accessibility: Myriad upper-level windows, two balconies (though both are dangerous), and several chimneys allow direct access to the upper level, without having to pass through the Ubue choke-point. My players made use of several exterior windows during their explorations of an orange+green B3 mashup.

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    1. Hi Guy! That’s an excellent point, and rather subtle. The myriad fireplaces could be used to climb up, though again the connections between different fireplaces could be outlined/emphasized a lot better (hell, maybe they are better emphasized in the Moldvay version). I think this is one example where the weird isometric maps of the latter 2e era could have really helped us.

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      1. Yeah, orange B3 did itself no favors by obfuscating the verticality. It even surrounded the entire upper level map in non-photo blue. Green B3’s upper level map did a much better job conveying the outside edge of the structure, but then took away those access points by surrounding the castle in a deadly ruby glow.

        Too bad neither version included the exterior castle illustration that ended up in Polyhedron. It’s the grayscale illo here that folks suggest might be a KotB alternative, but which more correctly matches B3’s castle (mirror imaged): https://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=51480

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      2. I’ve noticed a dearth of modules that treat ancient castles as actual locations to be explored rather then video game levels, although I suppose the former is far more challenging then the latter so it makes sense. Something like Tegel Manor seems the more impressive because of all the different paths once can take.

        Sweet sweet Erol Otus art (no homo).

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