Marco Volo: Departure is the first volume of the Marco Volo trilogy, designed for four to eight player characters of levels 6 to 8. This free-wheeling adventure begins with an intrigue-laden journey from Waterdeep to Shadowdale. The party is thrown into the company of one Marcus Wands (also known as "Marco Volo"), a bothersome but likeable little rogue. In his guise of Marco, he gains unintentional help from the party members, leading only to their own arrest. To remedy that predicament, the characters are strong-armed into carrying an important letter to Shadowdale, and taking along Marcus as their "guide."
Of course, things are nowhere near as simple as they seem.
There's this little matter of the Dragonking's Eye, a powerful artifact from another plane. Naively, Marcus thought he could steal the thing and pin the theft on Volothamp Geddarm, the roguish author of many popular books about cities in the Realms. The notorious mage-assassin Felibarr Blacklance has been hired to hunt for the thief, and he is a man grimly determined to earn his fee.
Then, there's the business about this letter that's on its way to Shadowdale. It is accompanied by a rare enchanted item that wizards and fortune hunters want to obtain at all costs.
A series of adventures ensues that takes the adventurers from Waterdeep to the Way Inn, by which time they will doubtless suspect there is more to Marco Volo than meets the eye. Amid the brawls and mistaken identities, the wild rides and the glowering villains, the characters never have a chance to slow down or catch their collective breath. What results is a light-hearted, picaresque adventure in the manner ofDumas and Sabatini, and a good time is had by all!
(Except the bad guys, of course. They're never happy with how things are turning out...)
"Marco Volo: Departure" (1994), by Anthony Pryor, is the first in a trilogy of Forgotten Realms adventures. It was published in May 1994.
Origins (I): The Realms Adventures. With the advent of AD&D second edition (1989), TSR began experimenting with the publication of trilogies of adventures rather than the stand-alone modules that had been AD&D's bread and butter in the '70s and '80s. For the Forgotten Realms this resulted in the "FRE" Avatar trilogy (1989) and the "FRA" Empires trilogy (1990). After that, Realms adventure trilogies were put on hold for a few years, while TSR instead published six standalone adventures through three(!) adventure codes: two "FA" adventures (1990-1991), three "FRQ" adventures (1992-1993), and one "FRM" adventure (1993).
But in 1994, TSR decided to give adventure trilogies another shot. The standalone adventures began to fade (and would disappear entirely by 1996) and instead annual trilogies of adventures appeared for the Forgotten Realms. The first of these was the "Marco Volo" series. Two more would appear in 1995 and 1996. However, there was one notable change between the older trilogies of 1989 and 1990 and the newer ones of the mid '90s. Where before the adventure trilogies had been Realms-shaking Events, now they were smaller stories (and the last wouldn't even be a connected adventure).
Origins (II): Sources. Pryor set out to write a very different sort of adventure: one with much more modern sensibilities than the classic medieval-based adventures of D&D. This shows in his inspirations, which he lists in "Departure" as Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) and Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950). Pryor specifically suggests reading Dumas' The Three Musketeers (1844) or "The Man in the Iron Mask" (1875-1950), which is the later part of The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Yen Years Later (1847), as well as Sabatini's Scaramouche (1921) "to get in the mood". He also suggests one modern take on these books: Steven Brust's Dumas-inspired The Phoenix Guards (1991), as well as his related Vlad Taltos books (1983-Present). The late period of the Dumas and Sabatini novels and the romantic and adventuresome theming of all these influences suggests how different Pryor's take on D&D adventuring was — but it was one that was entirely appropriate for the cultured and sophisticated parts of the Realms.
Genre Tropes: Humor. Pryor also focuses on creating an adventure that's "light-hearted" — again showing the influence of Dumas and Sabatini. But he was perhaps wary of the poor regard for certain adventures of the late '80s and early '90s that had been entirely satirical. So Pryor promises that the adventure will "never [be] farcical or slapstick".
Adventure Tropes. "Departure" is an episodic adventure of the sort that was common at TSR in the '90s. That means that players are guided from scene to scene with little agency. In fact it uses one of the worst tropes of the '90s, "captured", where the players are set to become prisoners no matter what they do. The whole adventure series received some notable criticism in Dragon magazine's forums column for this structure.
However, once the adventure moves onto the open road, the railroading feels less heavy-handed. That's because the adventure becomes picaresque; if encounters happen in a specific order at specific times on the road, it makes sense, because that's the linear nature of the road.
Exploring the Realms. The first three sections of "Departure" are all set in Waterdeep giving some details on a few individual locales as well general politics. This supplements material in Volo's Guide to Waterdeep (1992) and in City of Splendors (1994), which appeared a few months later.
Afterward, "Departure" moves down the road through Daggerford to Way Inn, across the the popular setting of the Sword Coast. This is Way Inn's only major adventure appearance, though it'd recur a few months later in Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast (1994).
NPCs of Note. The name Marco Volo evokes the name of "Marco Polo", probably purposefully so. But he's not a serious explorer, though he'll make a major journey over the course of these adventure. His real name is Marcus Wands, and he's a member of the noble Wands of Waterdeep.
Marco Volo is trying to frame Volothamp Geddarm, the author of the Volo Guides, for a crime. Ironically, this purposeful in-world confusion created by Marco Volo's pseudonym has also created confusion for readers, many of whom think that Marco Volo is actually the author of the Volo Guides. He's not. And that's not even his name.
Artifacts of Note. The crime in question was Marcus' theft of an artifact known as the Dragonking's Eye. It's hidden in the Spiderhaunt Woods, which means that players will have to wait two adventures to actually meet it.
About the Creators. Pryor had been writing for TSR since 1991, but 1994 was his most prolific year, with contributions to Elminster's Ecologies (1994) and solo authorship of the three Marco Volo adventures as well as Elves of Evermeet (1994).
About the Product Historian
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