By far and away, the most popular post I've ever written on this blog is one of its earliest ones. Entitled "30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time," the post is a brief commentary on a list published in issue #116 of Dungeon magazine, in which I offered my thoughts on the entries included in this list. The list includes modules from the entire history of Dungeons & Dragons up until that point (2004) and its choices, as I say in my post, are idiosyncratic to say the least. Even so, the list is a good conversation starter and I've had many fruitful discussions of the merits and flaws of various D&D modules over the years.
Recently, a long-time reader of this blog asked me if I'd ever written a post in which I ranked the modules of D&D's golden age. As it turned out, I had not and, with his encouragement, I started thinking about doing so. Unlike my reader, I wasn't prepared to look at all the adventures published for D&D during the period between 1974 and 1983. Instead, I decided to restrict myself solely to those published by TSR during that period. Further, I was only going to rank my top ten.
Please note the possessive pronoun. What follows is the first part of a list of the ten D&D adventure modules published by TSR during the game's golden age, ranked according to my own tastes. I make no claims that my preferences are, let alone should be, universal. Nevertheless, I will make an effort to explain the reasons I've included every module on this list. I hope that doing so will provide not just some context to my own ranking but also engender wider conversation about the classics of the early days of Dungeons & Dragons.
The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
Of all the modules in my list, this is the one whose esteem in my eyes has risen the most. That's because, with the benefit of hindsight, I better appreciate the cleverness of its design. While there are a handful of monsters to be found here, such as the first appearance of the gibbering mouther, the real attractions are the shrine's many tricks and traps. Speaking as someone who's often had difficulty coming up with such things, I can't help but admire the imaginations of Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason. They succeeded in creating a good mix of challenges for both brain and brawn, which is precisely what a good dungeon requires to be memorable and fun. Couple this with the Mesoamerican vibe of the shrine – used to good effect in the included illustration booklet – and you've got a winner. One of these days, I ought to try running it again to see if I can use it to better effect than I did as a kid. Given the quality of its design, I suspect I can.
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
Published in 1980, this is the first (but not the last) time Gary Gygax's byline is seen on this last. As a kid, I was somewhat ambivalent about this module, given its inclusion of explicitly science fictional elements, but, nowadays, such genre bending appeals to me a lot more. Beyond that, the module features lots of unique encounters, not just with the alien animals living aboard the wrecked spaceship – who can forget the froghemoth? – but with some of the weird denizens of the Monster Manual, like the mind flayer and the intellect devourer. Equally memorable are the striking visual designs of the high technology scattered throughout the ship. Few of them look anything like what players would expect of a futuristic weapon, which very nicely simulates how medieval fantasy characters might look on such things the first time they encounter them. Finally, the design of the ship's decks deserve praise too.
The Lost City
I simply adore this module. The only reason it isn't rated higher is that there are so many excellent candidates for this list and inevitably one of them would have to occupy this rank. Part of what I regularly call Tom Moldvay's "Pulp Fantasy Trilogy," (the other parts to be discussed shortly) The Lost City is a great evocation of, as its name suggests, the "lost city" genre that was a staple of pulp fiction (Howard's "Red Nails" probably being one of the most relevant examples for our purposes.) That Moldvay wrote the adventure for low-level characters is, to my mind, one of its best features. Too often scenarios of this sort are reserved to higher levels, on the assumption that the lost civilization contains mighty wonders and terrors suitable only for potent PCs. Moldvay, on the other hand, offers up the titular city as the starting point for a whole campaign, one that could potentially take those low-level characters to much greater heights of power and importance. That's how it's done.
The Isle of Dread
This was the adventure module that first taught me the joys of wilderness exploration, an aspect of D&D with which I still sometimes struggle to this day. Together, David Cook and Tom Moldvay present a delightfully open-ended locale, populated by all manner of monsters and NPC. Though the promise of treasure is what initially draws the characters to the Isle, there's so much more to do there, whether it be fighting prehistoric monsters, negotiating with the natives, or even just filling in every hex on the blank map they're carrying with them. When I first refereed this in my youth, the player characters spent many sessions on the Isle, scouring every hex in search of its mysteries. In the process, they ran afoul of pirates who would eventually become recurring antagonists for a time. The module is also notable for having presented a map and brief gazetteer of the "Known World" fantasy setting.
This module ranks so high for me, because it was my introduction to the fiction of Clark Ashton Smith, thereby initiating a lifelong fascination with the Bard of Auburn and his works. Of course, Castle Amber is a genuinely fun adventure, provided you're in the mood for a funhouse dungeon. What I like about this module is that, while it is a funhouse, filled with bizarre and occasionally silly things, it's not completely inexplicable. There's an underlying logic to the place and its inhabitants. There are reasons why the Amber family behaves as they do and uncovering those reasons play a large role in the fun of this adventure – assuming you survive. I know many aficionados of old school D&D point to Judges Guild's Tegel Manor as the best example of this style of "wild and woolly" module, but, for my money, Castle Amber is better written and presented and overall more fun. It's a true classic and worthy of more praise than it typically gets.