Sunday, April 26, 2009

Five Classic D+D Modules that didn't suck

OK, I loved every minute of playing D+D back in the '80's. Who cared if the environments we were given by the gaming industry led us on another boring hack and slash adventure. We were young adolescence, and violence was fun. Interesting characters and intricate plots, if they existed, were purely due to the accident of a good GM, who could provide those things on his own.

Still, some of these old modules smell just as fresh as the day I removed the shrink-wrap.

5. Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits (David Sutherland, Gary Gygax). OK, I ranted against the six modules that led up to this one. And, like many Gygax modules, it is filled with pointless combat encounters. But those encounters almost all include twists to keep players thinking (like the demons polymorphed into white mice, or the Drow agents assulting the party from behind peepholes). This was one of the first high-level adventures published, and it was the first extra-planar adventure. It did not disappoint on either front. The challenges are challenging but not insurmountable. The Demonweb really was an alien place, with its own physical laws for players to discover. Lolth became one of the hobby's most persistent villains, not because she was tough, but because she was sinistersexycool. Much as I hate the artwork of Erol Otis, his image of her in a spiderweb bikini getting cozy with two demons fueled about half of my adolescent fantasies.

4. C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness. This tournament adventure was just as contrived as could be. Four towers, each with a portion of a key that was protected by exactly two encounters. Once the players had the key, they climbed a tower, puzzling their way through a few more encounters until they achieve the Great McGuffin. But oh, what encounters. Random though they may be, each was designed to test a team's resourcefulness. This was a great mix of light adventure, wild action, and innovative set pieces (like the room with reversed gravity).

3. A1-4 Against the Slavers. Again with the tournament modules. Perhaps because these were designed with a specific competition in mind, they tend to be written more clearly for the GM, and the pacing of the adventure seems to be be tighter. No endless garrisons of humanoids with NPC leaders who lack personality and motivation. These modules are full of interesting challenges. There are logical lapses, to be sure. For instance, why would the slavers in the first module leave their back door unguarded, so that the PCs have the chance to reach the lower levels without the alarm being raised? But such issues are forgotten once the action starts, unlike the G-series, these adventures are logically linked and build to a crescendo through plotting, not through tougher boss monsters.

2. L1 Secret of Bone Hill. Ah, yes, another cover geared to the tastes of my thirteen year old self. Never has a magic missile looked so sexy. But once one clears the cover (did you hear that, thirteen year old me? Turn the damn page!), one finds a terrific low-level setting by Len Lakofka. There is a village to explore with well-defined NPCs and an adventure site. There is a wilderness area for PCs to explore at their leisure. The challenges are tough and fluid (they change with the time of the day and they will respond to initial PC intrusions into their territory). The final dungeon has a garrison that makes sense: an alliance between a wraith and its undead minions and a wizard and his bugbear minions. There are also plausible tricks--the mirror of opposition, the chatty beholder-kin, the mixed up potions--to keep players on their toes and to prevent the ossification of yet another dungeon slog. I have run this setting in four different settings of D+D and it has yet to feel stale.

1. S2 White Plume Mountain. This one feels a little like the Ghost Tower of Inverness, in that players explore three branches of a dungeon's complex, searching for three magical weapons. It is a place that only a mad wizard could create, filled with seemingly random encounters and traps. But, oh, what a ride! This one feels like a carnival fun house, if carnival fun houses threw javelins at your head. Swinging on chains over a lake of lava! A menagerie built like an inverted ziggurat (I learned what a ziggurat was through S2)! A barrel-roll room to keep players (ahem) on their toes! The Heat Metal trap, which my player detected when they sent a summoned badger down the hall and discovered a new way to cook their food! These encounters stay with you so long, they become the moments that you bond with your friends over. And isn't that a great reason to game?

That's what I'm talkin' about...

Believe it or not, this image did not appear in any google image search I tried, and I could only find one snarky reference to it in text. Imagine, a writer was suggesting that this image was included solely for the purpose of the titillation of adolescents. Well, duh!
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