Back in November 2004, Paizo published Dungeon 116, among whose contents was "a list of classic adventures with help from an all-star panel of judges including Ed Greenwood, Christopher Perkins, Bruce Cordell, and Monte Cook." Called the "30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time," the list was intended to showcase the best modules ever published for the game. It's an interesting list for a number of reasons, chief among them being how idiosyncratic it is in its inclusion of modules that, quite frankly, aren't noteworthy in any significant way, never mind worthy of being called one of the "greatest." The list consists entirely of TSR-published modules with one exception, which I also think is important, because it points out how the "official" moniker has so come to dominate not just the way people play the game but also how they remember its past.
Here are my thoughts on the list.
1. Queen of Spiders, 1986 (G1-3, D1-3, Q1)
This is a bit of a cop-out entry. Taken as a whole, I don't think there's much doubt that the Giants/Drow series of modules is probably the most iconic collection of D&D adventures ever published and firmly established a number of Gygaxian elements/motifs/idiosyncrasies as normative for the game as a whole. However, I think it's cheating to lump all the modules together, particularly in the rather hamfisted "supermodule" format, and declare it the greatest D&D adventure of all time. In my opinion, Q1 is very weak, both conceptually and in its presentation, and the G series consists primarily of workmanlike dungeon crawls, albeit with a solid theme and enough backstory to give them greater significance. The D series, on the other hand, are universally excellent and indeed groundbreaking on many levels. I'd have fewer quibbles about naming, say, Vault of the Drow the greatest adventure of all time, even if it's not necessarily what I'd have chosen.
2. Ravenloft, 1983 (I6)
Much as I love the Gothic horror/melodrama atmosphere of this module, I think it's fair to say that Ravenloft has probably exercised the most baleful influence over the development of D&D of any module other than the Dragonlance series, which isn't surprising since Tracy Hickman was involved in both. I loved David Sutherland's three-dimensional maps at the time, but they proved less than ideal to use in play. Likewise, the plot is heavy-handed and railroad-y. And don't get me started on the fetishization of Strahd von Zarovich.
3. Tomb of Horrors, 1978 (S1)
I wrote at length about this yesterday, so you already know my opinion of this module. It's definitely one of the top 5 adventure modules of all time and I'd be suspicious of any list that didn't include it as such.
4. The Temple of Elemental Evil, 1985 (T1-4)
Another cop-out, but a more justifiable one. I'm personally of the opinion that T1 The Village of Hommlet alone deserves to be in any top 10 list of greatest adventures of all time. Coupled with the rest of the material from this supermodule, you can see how much better it is than the material that followed, which represents a valiant effort by Frank Mentzer to put into print both an important part of the Greyhawk campaign's history and a module promised for many years beforehand. I think T1-4 is solid, but it's not top 10 material as its rank here would imply.
5. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, 1980 (S3)
I don't have any quibbles about this module, which I both thoroughly enjoyed and think is indeed a classic on many levels, not least of which being its excellent illustration booklet.
6. The Desert of Desolation, 1987 (I3-5)
Another cop-out compilation but one I'm willing to let pass with less worry, since the modules play less as a series of independent but connected modules and more like a single module broken up into three pieces. It's been a long time since I looked at these and, while I am pretty sure they share the flaws of Tracy Hickman's other works (i.e. a heavy-handed plot), I recall there being a number of very clever old school traps and tricks throughout. Again, I'm not sure these modules are top 10 material, but I don't think them unworthy of some praise.
7. The Keep on the Borderlands, 1979 (B1)
Like The Village of Hommlet, B2 is nearly perfect. I'd rate it higher than 7, but that's a quibble.
8. Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, 2001
I could go on at some length about why this is a terrible, terrible module that misunderstands and butchers Greyhawk lore and demonstrates why the 3e Challenge Rating system is an abomination, but why bother? There's simply no justification for including this in a top 30 list, let alone ranking it at number 8.
9. White Plume Mountain, 1979 (S2)
I have great fondness for this module and no qualms about its inclusion in the top 30. I think it's too "game-y" an adventure to make the top 10, though. By that I mean that the whole set-up feels too artificial, as if it exists solely to provide an adventuring locale rather than as a location with its own internal logic independent of the adventurers having to go there.
10. Return to the Tomb of Horrors, 1998
I never owned or read this boxed set, so I can't really comment on its merits.
11. The Gates of Firestorm Peak, 1996
Written primarily to show off the new rules options from the 2.5e Player's Option books, I suspect this module made the list because of its introduction of the Far Realm, the Lovecraftian dimension that WotC era D&D seems so in love with. I'm not sure that alone justifies its inclusion here, as the rest of the module is pretty forgettable.
12. The Forge of Fury, 2000
I never owned this module either and, given that it's the second rather than the first release in WotC's 3e adventure path, I'm a bit baffled as to why it's here.
13. Dwellers of the Forbidden City, 1981 (I1)
As I've said before, this is definitely one of the greatest modules ever. I'd actually rate it higher than 13.
14. Dead Gods, 1997
I'm a fan of Planescape, but I can't say much good about most of the modules produced for the line, particularly the later ones, of which Dead Gods is part. They represent TSR's rather unfortunate flirtation with White Wolf-style metaplot, in the process wreaking havoc on an otherwise well-done, if off-kilter, take on fantasy.
15. Castle Amber, 1981 (X2)
Part of Tom Moldvay's "Pulp Fantasy Trilogy," Castle Amber is a favorite of mine.
16. Isle of Dread, 1980 (X1)
Ditto Isle of Dread.
17. Ruins of Undermountain, 1991
I never owned this, so I can't comment on its placement here.
18. The Hidden Shrine of Tamochan, 1980 (C1)
This is an excellent old school module that reminds me a bit of Tomb of Horrors in that it has very few monsters but plenty of tricks and traps. Likewise, the Mesoamerican ambience of the place -- given glorious life by many Erol Otus illustrations -- adds to its charm.
19. Against the Cult of the Reptile God, 1982 (N1)
An under-appreciated module that proves Douglas Niles once had serious design chops.
20. Scourge of the Slave Lords, 1986 (A1-4)
Yet another cop-out, but, again, an understandable one, given that modules A1-4 are a tighter series than the G/D/Q modules. I have a certain fondness for these adventures, but I don't worship them the way some old schoolers do. Part of my problem with them is that I don't find the central premise very compelling and the modules, being written by a variety of authors, are somewhat uneven in quality. In addition, there are moments of heavy-handedness, such as the necessity of the PCs to be captured, that I think militate against the series' real virtues. I don't object to their inclusion in a top 30 list and rank 20 seems about right for them.
21. Dark Tower, 1980 (from Judge’s Guild)
The sole entry in this list that wasn't produced by TSR, I don't have any problem with its presence, since this is a classic module by Paul Jaquays and deserves to be recognized as such. However, I happen to think there are many other Judges Guild modules even more deserving of being here, such as Caverns of Thracia and Tegel Manor (among others). Were I to make my own top 30, you can be sure quite a few JG adventures would bump many of the entries in this somewhat myopic list.
22. The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, 1982 (S4)
I have a fondness for module S4, but that's mostly because of its extensive booklet of monsters, magic items, and spells, which made far more of an impact on my campaign than the adventure proper, which is is rather bland.
23. The Forgotten Temple of Tharzidun, 1982 (WG4)
The "sequel" to The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, though, is one for which I have a greater appreciation. The adventure has a creepy, "eldritch" ambience to it that I love and the eponymous locale is suitably bizarre and Lovecraftian.
24. City of the Spider Queen, 2002
No. This adventure exists solely to sell more R.A. Salvatore novels and its heavy-handed plot depends on events in the novels to make any sense.
25. Dragons of Despair, 1984 (DL1)
Though my dislike for Dragonlance is well-known, I do think the first module in the series is well-done and intriguing. Had the series as a whole not been so heavily tied into events in the novels and had there been more support for deviating from the "correct" storyline, I think the DL could have become true classics. As it is, DL1 represents a path not taken, as well as one of the key moments when D&D lost its soul.
26. City of Skulls, 1993 (WGR6)
I never owned any of the Carl Sargent era Greyhawk modules, so I can't comment on this one, which I believe is about the empire of Iuz.
27. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, 1981 (U1)
Like most of the TSR UK modules, this one was excellent, being another great starting module that combines a fascinating little town with adventuring locales and adventure hooks. The rest of the U series is just as good in my opinion and quite possibly deserve a place on this list.
28. The Lost City, 1982 (B4)
The third module of Moldvay's "Pulp Fantasy Trilogy," this one is one is sometimes overshadowed by its bigger brothers, which is a shame, because it's a terrific evocation of "Red Nails" and other similar stories.
29. The Assassin’s Knot, 1983 (L2)
Why this is here and not L1 The Secret of Bone Hill is a mystery to me. Oh wait, it's because L2 features a mystery that it got the nod while the often-overlooked L1 did not. I think L2 is a solid module -- practically a mini-campaign, just like L1 -- but I also think that it gets more kudos than it deserves simply because of its murder mystery plot.
30. The Ghost Tower of Inverness, 1980 (C2)
While I have fond memories of this module, like White Plume Mountain it has the feel of being a game module rather than an internally consistent and logical location in its own right.