RPG Review: Dwellers of the Forbidden City

Earlier I examined some of TSR's earlier adventures which features what were essentially miniature campaign settings. They all had home bases for the adventurers, a wilderness, a decently sized dungeon, etc.

Dwellers of the Forbidden City shares some commonality with those but is also its own beast.

A friend in my first D&D group lent me his copy of Dwellers of the Forbidden City. There was one thing that grabbed my attention immediately. The map. It was a gorgeous map, portraying the titular Forbidden City in all of its glory. Moreover, unlike previous D&D adventures, this map was a 3D drawing. The Forbidden City itself lay at the bottom of a rift. Even without reading a single line of text one's imagination could not help but be stirred. To the best of my knowledge this was the first isometric map to appear in a D&D adventure - it might be the first such map to appear at all.

As can be seen by the low-quality image to the right, the Forbidden City lay at the bottom of some sort of rift. The city consisted of ruined buildings and a lake in the middle of a swamp.You got the impression that these ruins represented a small subset of a larger ruin, though perhaps this section was the only part to survive - perhaps some disaster caused to sink into the earth.

Technically set in The World of Greyhawk setting, this adventure would take all of a second to convert to other setting. All you really need is an unexplored jungle to plop it into.

The background for the adventure involves reports of all sorts of interesting items found by merchants that hail from the Forbidden City. None of these ever make it to market for the caravans are waylaid on their return to civilization. The characters follow rumors of the city into to the jungle and eventually a friendly chief gives them directions and gives them basic information as to what sorts of dangers they might encounter.

There are a few possible ways the characters might get into the city, from attempting to climb down the rift walls to working their way through some tunnels into the city, though of course these are infested with monsters (and for some reason, a reverse gravity region - why is it there? Who knows... That's always been part of the charm of older adventures for me.)

There is no "meta-plot" per se within the Forbidden City. Whose city its once was is fairly unspecific, though there is a suggestion that the serpent-men known as the yuan-ti are degenerate descendants of the original masters and the "mongrelmen" (hybrids of a few gazillion humanoid, human, and demi-human races) are descendants of the original masters. The yuan-ti are a neat little Lovecraftian monster which has become a classic of D&D - I believe this was their first appearance and I believe they've appeared in every AD&D/D&D 3.x/4e version since. They are degenerate men who have somehow interbred with snakes, with various stages of degeneration. One interesting tidbit is they are only encountered as wandering monsters, venturing into the city and back out again, much like the adventurers.

The city itself is full of factions - an evil wizard, bullywugs, bugbears, mongrelmen, etc. My group got a kick out of encountering bullywugs given they were the main mooks of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon of the early 80s. The characters have an incentive to become one of the factions - wandering monsters are an extra-painful threat at night in the Forbidden City, though after the adventurers keep a camp for an extended period of time the chances of encounters decreases dramatically as their presence in the city becomes accepted, if not loved, by the other factions. This is important, as there is no "home base" for the characters within the city, though in an emergency they could presumably seek out the native village from whence they received directions.

The adventure ends with some additional suggested reasons the characters might visit the city along with possible adventures and expansions to the city. There is also a section of new monsters, for a lot of the creatures within were new at the time.

Like many early TSR adventures, this adventure can double as a campaign. In a brief booklet we've got material that could be used for a single adventure or easily stretched out for an entire campaign. As its tag of "I1" indicates it is for intermediate level characters. It could easily be adapted to many of the newer "Old School" games. Of the ones I've reviewed so far, the lost city element of it certainly seems appropriate to the "Appendix N" nature of Dungeon Crawl Classics. It has the Lovecraftian elements which make it a good fit for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy. And in a game of Adventurer Conqueror King characters could conceivably try to set up their own domain in the city or in its vicinity or use its riches to finance their own domain.


  1. I have some very fond memories of this module. It was the module that I ever bought and therefore, it was the first module that I ever DMed. My main memory was of the Bugbear chieftain's intelligent sword of wounding that nearly brought about the death of my friend's Brad's favorite character, a dwarven fighter with 18/99 strength. That was an epic fight. I just wish that they would have gotten around to writing the sequel that the wrote about in the module. I wanted the characters to meet the Lawful good bat people...Maybe I am remembering that wrong.

  2. that one little mention of time gate going to inhuman past has inspired every game world of mine since - one of my favorite modules

  3. Always bugged me that the left side of the city looked like Alaska. Once i saw that I couldn't unsee it.


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