Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Favorite D&D Adventures

Over on his journal, Paizo publisher Erik Mona has listed his top five favorite D&D adventures of all time. I posted my own list in his comments, but I thought I'd also post them here, along with extended commentary.

  • Tomb of Horrors: I don't think it's possible to better illustrate the old school mantra "player, not character, skill" than with module S1. It's a text book example of this important design principle and a heck of a good adventure to boot. It's also a text book example of how much gaming has changed since the old days. I simply can't imagine any game company producing a module built on similar principles today nor can I imagine most of today's players enjoying it even if one would.
  • The Village of Hommlet: When people ask me what I mean when I talk about "Gygaxian fantasy," I point to this module. Here you have a sleepy little town constructed on an almost-believable, quasi-historical basis, peopled with quirky NPCs, existing under the shadow of a dark past that threatens to be reborn. And, for my money, the ruins of the Moathouse are among the best introductory adventure locales every published.
  • Castle Amber: Any module that uses Clark Ashton Smith's Averoigne stories as its inspiration gets a thumbs up in my book. More than that, this module is a terrific evocation of the weird. Running and playing this module is an oddly phantasmagoric experience; the whole thing has the character of a dream. It was a module made for an Erol Otus cover (which it has) and I think it offers a nice counterpoint to more staid fantasy adventures. It's part of the late Tom Moldvay's "pulp fantasy" trilogy (the other two being the also-excellent The Isle of Dread and The Lost City).
  • Dwellers of the Forbidden City: I played the heck out of this module back in the day. For some reason, it just grabbed me. I consider it to be a kissing cousin of the aforementioned The Lost City, because it's based in the ruins of a formerly-great capital now fallen into decadence. The whole thing has a terrific pulp fantasy vibe and it introduced the yuan-ti and the bullywugs, two of my favorite non-Gygaxian monsters. I consider this to be David Cook's best work until Planescape.
  • Expedition to the Barrier Peaks: Mixing sci-fi and fantasy is considered a no-no by some nowadays. Part of my continued liking for this module is the fact that it mocks such sensibilities. It's a reminder that "fantasy" was once a much more broad genre than it's become since the advent of D&D. This is also a really fun module too, with its bizarre monsters (vegepygmies, anyone?) and strange-looking technological "treasures." I always had a blast with this adventure (no pun intended).
What are your favorite D&D adventures?

26 comments:

  1. I've always had a soft spot for GHOST TOWER OF INVERNESS, mainly due to the fact that it showed a very young DM that characters can be motivated by reasons other than 'kill the monster, grab the gold.' I agree completely that VILLAGE OF HOMMLET is perhaps the purest module-based example of Gygaxian fantasy.

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  2. My list is about the same. For DotFC I'd substitute White Plume Mountain, perhaps the pinnacle of the classic trick, puzzle and trap-laden tournament style modules. For Hommlet I'd switch in Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth -- maybe not EGG's best-designed dungeon but overflowing with inventive new monsters and treasure. (n.b. these subs based in part on my unfamiliarity with Forbidden City & Hommlet.)

    I'm also partial to Queen of the Demonweb Pits though I wonder about the feasibility of surviving it. Tomb of Horrors can, with skill and luck, be out thought, but QotDP has so many deadly fighting encounters, and does so much to hamstring a party's spellcasting it always seemed like a meatgrinder to me. Anybody have any tales of running this one?

    Recently discovered Rat on a Stick. Love. It. Great example of the lighter side of classic gaming.

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  3. I'm a huge fan of S1 and S3. Some of the other modules would be in my top 10 if they didn't have Holloway art. What can I say, I'm superficial. :(

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  4. B5: Horror on the Hill. My first module, and still my favourite. :)

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  5. White Plume Mountain is a fave of mine as well. I had a blast a few years ago running it as a "tournament" module, with all my players competing against one another to lay claim to Blackrazor before the others could do so. It's really a brilliant module and proof that Lawrence Schick was in fact a solid designer, despite his reputation to the contrary.

    I am also fond of Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and consider the published version probably the best "late Gygaxian" adventure. It's a terrific environment and very "sand box-y" in character.

    I'm less keen on Queen of the Demonweb Pits, which has always struck me as somehow "odd" compared to the G and D series modules. The tone and content are just off somehow and I never got much use out of it. I know Gary disliked it, for what it's worth.

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  6. What can I say, I'm superficial. :(

    I'm really of two minds about Holloway. On the one hand, I like the fact that he uses humor -- often black -- in his art and that his people look "real," which is to say "scruffy." On the other hand, there's just something intangible about it that rubs me the wrong way. I can't quite figure out what, though.

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  7. @James: "I'm less keen on Queen of the Demonweb Pits, which has always struck me as somehow "odd" compared to the G and D series modules. The tone and content are just off somehow and I never got much use out of it. I know Gary disliked it, for what it's worth."

    It lacks the sandbox elements of the others, and largely does not reward players' diplomatic skill and cunning so much as their tactical ability. The Demonweb in particular is more of a tournament style adventure, and judged on those grounds it's has some fiendish and interesting combat challenges.

    But it's a weird capstone to the G & D series, true. I imagine some of Gygax's dislike may have been born of disappointment, since if memory serves he originally planned to complete the series but had to turn to other projects.

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  8. I imagine some of Gygax's dislike may have been born of disappointment, since if memory serves he originally planned to complete the series but had to turn to other projects.

    That might in fact be the case. From my conversations with him, he often seemed most negative and/or bitter about projects he himself had intended to take up and then entrusted to other people. I quite clearly recall that he hated the version of Oriental Adventures that was published, feeling it was David Cook's own idiosyncratic vision that carried the day rather than his own (and that of Francois Marcela-Froideval). I also recall that he regretted entrusting Skip Williams with the Shadowland/Plane of Shadow materials he'd wanted to kick off a series of extraplanar adventures/supplements.

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  9. Yeah, I also noticed the connection between I1 and B4. To tell the truth, I changed I1's forbidden city into the ancient capital of Cynidiceans. That was cool!

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  10. B10 Night's Dark Terror was the best module I've ever seen. A whole campaign with little to no railroading and a wide variety of threats, ending with a mad dash through a dungeon pursued by a Cthuloid menace. The best module I've ever seen.

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  11. I've always been a fan of the following modules:
    The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh - First Module i ever played. My fighter died.

    The Sentinel,and the Gauntlet - a great combo set of modules that i played over and over again, as well as starting to run it again for a number of my players.

    Under Illefarn - a great introductory module set in the forgotten realms, just south of waterdeep - I've actually managed to integrate both the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and this module together in a campaign i ran. That poor speciality Priest of Helm in his heavy armour falling off the dock. Good times, good times.

    Lastly, i'd have to see Keep on the Borderlands, a number of abortive attempts to play through always left us wanting more.

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  12. I haven't posted here since you disabled anonymous comments a couple months back, but I just can't resist survey/list threads like this. My top 5:

    1. The Abduction of Good King Despot (by Will & Schar Niebling and Russ Stambaugh; New Infinities, 1988): This module is the epitome of the "funhouse with internal logic" that I just praised in a post at dragonsfoot -- the dungeon is a completely linear and completely non-ecologized (there are some joking nods to what the monsters do when the PCs aren't around but they're not to be taken seriously) gauntlet of tricks, puzzles, and monsters that at first glance seem completely random and arbitrary but are actually all part of a complex and internally-consistent pattern that clever players will eventually recognize and be able to use to their advantage while less-perceptive players will waste tons of time and resources on red-herrings. This was Gary Gygax's favorite module to run at conventions and it's obvious why -- the combination of whimsy and tough challenges (both tactical and intellectual) represents the best of old-style D&D, and the linear nature makes sure the players will get a good dose of fun in a short time-frame (but that said, neither of the two times I've run it did the party get anywhere near all the way through -- or even halfway).

    2. Caverns of Thracia (by Paul Jaquays; Judges Guild, 1979): The 3-dimensional map in this module is amazing, as is the complexity of the backstory and the interaction of the various factions within the dungeon. All that while being completely open-ended plotwise -- this (along with another Jaquays classic, Griffin Mountain (for RuneQuest)) is the opposite of railroading: he provides a huge, fully detailed dungeon chock full of interesting characters, plot hooks, and potential developments, and lets you do with it as you please. No offense to the fine folks at TSR, but what Jaquays was doing here is so much more ambitious and sophisticated than what they were doing at the same time in their published modules (S2) that it's like they're barely in the same league. There is a drawback to this module which keeps it out of the #1 slot: it's so complex, with so many moving parts, that a prospective DM really has to know it like the back of his hand. This is emphatically not a "read once and run" module; to really make it shine you're probably going to have to put in almost as much effort as designing your own dungeon (but the payoff is likely to be worth it, unless you're actually as good as Paul Jaquays (and, lets face it, you're almost certainly not :p).

    3. Necropolis: The Land of AEgypt (by Gary Gygax; GDW, 1992 (d20 version Necromancer Games, 2002): This is my favorite Gary Gygax module, combining elements of many of his earlier classics into a true epic that works equally well as a story as it does as an adventure game (and some game it is -- the Temple of Osiris section is extremely tough and action-packed, and the Tomb of Rahotep itself makes the infamous Tomb of Horrors seem like childsplay by comparison). There's occasional debate about the difference between "old school" and "Gygaxian" which, to me, this module illustrates perfectly -- I don't consider it particularly "old school" -- there's too much contextual detail, too specific of a plot, too little whimsy and casual anachronism, it's too much of a polished product and not enough of a toolbox for the DM to use as he wishes (contrast with Caverns of Thracia above), but it's the very epitome of Gygaxian -- the swords & sorcery flavor, the florid descriptive language, the types of challenges (directed at the players rather than their characters), etc.

    4. The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (by Gary Gygax; TSR, 1983): The Other Side of Gygax -- pure whimsy and casual anachronism, epitomizing the description recently given by Mike Mornard of the essence of playing with Gary: "Wracking your brain for the right combination of pop-culture memes, dropped quotes from Gary's reading list, and Firesign Theater references to solve the puzzle before you as he sits there, chuckling and saying 'You've got all the clues'." I've convinced this is a module that you either "get" or "don't get" -- no other published module before or since has had so little disregard for the notion of "player knowledge" vs. "character knowledge," or of "setting verisimilitude." And let's not neglect that it's also very tough -- players who write this off as a "joke module" and don't take its challenges sufficiently seriously are almost certain to end up with dead characters, and even those at the top of their game are likely to be sorely tested by at least a few of the encounters -- running away is absolutely the best move more often than not, and the players who realize that soonest will do much better than those who don't. FWIW I give this module the edge over its companion, Dungeonland for a couple reasons: 1) the structure of EX1 is too linear for my tastes in several places, especially at the end, whereas EX2 allows the players a bit more room to wander freely and explore things at their own pace, and 2) I really like the Murlynd's Mansion section at the beginning of the module, which I read as a loving tribute by Gary to his childhood friend and business partner Don Kaye (at a time when, I suspect, Gary was missing him most acutely, as his business relation with the brothers Blume spiraled out of control).

    5. Shrine of the Kuo Toa (by Gary Gygax; TSR, 1978): For its wonderful flavor and atmosphere (Gygax's most Lovecraftian work) and open-ended nature. As-written there's no reason for the players to spend more than the bare minimum amount of time here -- the way to "win" the module in the tournament set-up is to befriend the Svirfneblin, observe the ritual, perform it successfully, and leave -- but there's so much potential beyond that, so much room for the DM to expand it. This, to me, is the truest definition of "module" -- no specific plot, just a flavorful and intriguing location described in great detail for the DM to use as he sees fit. That the same group of players could find themselves returning to this same location several times for different reasons fills me inner DM with glee.

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  13. @ T. Foster:

    Thanks for mentioning EX1/2! Off with my head for not thinking of those this morning!

    "....Firesign Theater references..."? It tickles me to no end to learn EGG was a fan.

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  14. Here is what I posted on ENWorld yesterday. My list is prone to occasional shifts and changes, but there are some stable points on it.

    #1 Dark Tower by Paul Jaquays; 1st edition AD&D: an epic multi-level dungeon crawl centered on warring gods, their semi-immortal worshippers and a bunch of overpowered artifacts. The dungeon has one of the best layouts I have seen (only overshadowed by #3 on my list); the antagonists and allies are well thought out and memorable personalities; the tricks and traps are variable and interesting, and the whole module has a tremendously well realised sword&sorcery atmosphere.

    #2 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan by Harold Johnson & Jeff R. Leason; 1st edition AD&D: one of TSR's less known items. What I like in Tamoachan is that it uses a cool adventure setup ("you find yourself at the bottom of a weird old temple complex flooded by poison gas - now get out before it kills you!") and mixes it with a lot of inventive dungeon puzzle type encounters that manage to be ingenious, not impossible, quirky and an interesting reflection on Mesoamerican mythology at the same time. All three groups I ran through the module loved it, even the one that met a horrid end therein. It is a strange feature of the module that the cool fire-breathing bat thing of the pastel cover edition does not actually feature in the module. It was so cool, though, that I had to put it in myself, adding a desperate running and ducking combat section to the scenario. The players eventually did it in by luring it into one of the pit traps and killing it from above with missiles and thrown boulders.

    #3 Tegel Manor by Bob Bledsaw; Original D&D: a strange, once legendary dungeon about the rambling, dilapidated mansion an insane noble family stuffed chock full of plain wacked-out strangeness. Tegel is entirely unconcerned about verisimilitude, ecology or game balance, but it is an excellent example of playfulness for the sake of it. Also, the dungeon map is extremely well designed... just right in all respects. It plays well, too. What keeps it out of the #1 spot is that, on its own, the module is a bit sparse; there aren't enough tricks, traps and interactive bits in it, and much of the haunting effects are just for show.

    #4 Tomb of Abysthor by Clark Peterson and Bill Webb; 3e D&D: I think this is the best new adventure Necromancer Games released, and the best representative of the 3rd edition rules, 1st edition feel concept. The dungeon reads well and what is more important, it plays very well indeed, with a lot of adventuring possibilities, odd alliances, a frog-cult and so forth.

    #5 The Secret of Bone Hill by Len Lakofka; 1st edition AD&D: this is cheating a bit, since the adventure on its own is rather sparse. But there is something about the openness, little bits of cool imaginative detail that makes your imagination go. It is also a good realisation of the "mini-campaign setting" concept, as well as, along with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, the basis for the first modern Hungarian fantasy novel.

    And plus one which I completely forgot about, but which may take a very high rank if I actually ran it:
    #X Realm of the Slime God by Paul Jaquays; Original D&D: This is, simply, the best module produced by 1970s fanzine culture; just mixing the right amount of gonzo nonsense, sentient alien blobs, good dungeon design, monstrous and dungeon challenge-oriented encounters. It is passionate and not very polished, and that suits me just fine.

    ------

    On your list, James; I have a rather low opinion on The Village of Hommlet. In my eyes, it is the first step towards the "cheerful Olde Englande yeomanry" that ended up eating up the wonder and strangeness in D&D, and expunged the Vancian/pulp fiction elements. Some hints of greatness are there (after all, it is a Gygax module), but too little, and far outweighed by the bad. Of course, I recognise that a lot of people wanted/want their fantasy to be Olde Englande with Goblins and Mead; I am just not one of them. I am also ambivalent on Barrier Peaks: a better concept than an adventure, with too much empty space in between good, well thought out encounters.

    --Melan

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  15. In terms of raw fun had in the modules over the years, this is my list:

    1. "Queen of the Spiders" (specifically, D3, G3, and G2)

    2. Dark Tower

    3. Tomb of Horrors

    4. Lichemaster (from WFRP1, but I've had reliable success from this one in D&D and WFRP both)

    At least those are the four that I've played over and over and had fun every time. If I had to round out the list I think the 5th would be either Caverns of Thracia or Keep on the Borderlands. I've also had great luck hacking CoC Dreamlands adventures for D&D - just make them slightly more naturalistic and set them in the actual fantasy world rather than in a separate dream-world. The vibe is just right, at least for me.

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  16. Barrier Peaks plays better than it reads. I only ran it all the way through once, amazingly; got to try that again someday.

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  17. In the interests of fairness, I have to admit that I have no playing experience with S3. Nor with Dark Tower, sadly: I almost got there, but then that campaign dropped dead when my gaming stuff was stolen and we lost our enthusiasm...

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  18. B10 Night's Dark Terror was the best module I've ever seen.

    Indeed it was. Like many of the UK modules, it was a cut above the standard TSR fare, especially at the time it was published. I still own a copy of it and am often tempted to use it as the basis for a short campaign.

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  19. Thanks for posting your list, Foster. I am glad you decided to weigh in on this one. Some very interesting choices. One of these days I need to get hold of "Good King Despot," since it's the one on your list I have never seen, let alone played.

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  20. In my eyes, it is the first step towards the "cheerful Olde Englande yeomanry" that ended up eating up the wonder and strangeness in D&D, and expunged the Vancian/pulp fiction elements. Some hints of greatness are there (after all, it is a Gygax module), but too little, and far outweighed by the bad.

    I'm somewhat sympathetic to your view, honestly. I tend to be an odd bird, in that my own fantasy gaming tastes sort of lie between the Gygaxian "Merrie Olde Englande" strain and the more outré Smith/Vance strain, with the former winning out by the narrowest of margins. That said, I agree that that strain of Gygaxian D&D has visited much harm upon the game and is at least partially responsible for the slide away from pulp fantasy and into epic, high fantasy of the Dragonlance type.

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  21. Barrier Peaks plays better than it reads. I only ran it all the way through once, amazingly; got to try that again someday.

    I agree. I found that it works best with groups who are able to "disconnect" themselves from the knowledge that their characters are in fact exploring a spaceship. If they treat the whole thing like some kind of weird metal-walled dungeon, the end result is quite enjoyable.

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  22. my own fantasy gaming tastes sort of lie between the Gygaxian "Merrie Olde Englande" strain and the more outré Smith/Vance strain

    I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. Village of Hommlet is by no means one of my favorite modules at this point, but I think it can be presented with a tone similar to that of Averoigne.

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  23. @ James: "I found that [S3] works best with groups who are able to "disconnect" themselves from the knowledge that their characters are in fact exploring a spaceship. If they treat the whole thing like some kind of weird metal-walled dungeon, the end result is quite enjoyable."

    This may be why such pains were taken to make the design of some of the tech artifacts in the adventure so unusual. None of the laser guns look or function much like a pistol or rifle, which helps create a sense of strangeness and unfamiliarity.

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  24. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. Village of Hommlet is by no means one of my favorite modules at this point, but I think it can be presented with a tone similar to that of Averoigne.

    I absolutely agree on this point. Indeed, I'm pretty sure Gary played it that way, what with secret cultists of Elemental Evil that riddled Hommlet and the rise of Lareth the Beautiful to power in the Moathouse and so on. I think the Gygaxian strain is about the characters adventuring in that "borderland" between the mundane and the weird -- the PCs exist in two worlds. The problem is that later writers weren't as skilled in pulling this off and we wound up with perversions of the original formula.

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  25. None of the laser guns look or function much like a pistol or rifle, which helps create a sense of strangeness and unfamiliarity.

    Very much agreed. I loved the look of the technology in the module, because it had an "alien" quality to it that set a nice tone. My feeling has always been that "sci-fi" tech is fine in a fantasy game so long as it doesn't look like it came off the set of Star Wars or something. It should be weird.

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  26. I’ve played/run so few of the modules. I think the other guys in my original group had been through most of them by the time I joined, so I missed them.

    (Most of the ones I have experienced were under other systems during by “anything but D&D” days.)

    So, I don’t really have enough opinions to name my favorites.

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