Friday, December 10, 2021

My Top 10 D&D Adventures of the Golden Age (Part II)

 (Part I can be found here.)

5. The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun

This is another module that has risen in my esteem as the years have gone on. Originally, I thought well of it primarily for its feel – creeping, claustrophobic oppression.  I still admire it on the score, of course, but I now better appreciate the design of the dungeon itself, starting with the fact that it's quite well defended by the various evil humanoids that dwell within it. The characters can't just waltz up to the Temple and enter it without facing any opposition. Instead, they have to survive waves of humanoids trying to stop them. Once inside, there are still plenty of foes, as well as tricks and traps to overcome, culminating in the Black Cyst, which might be the prison of the dark god Tharizdun himself. I say "might," because Gygax never makes this clear and, in fact, shrouds a great deal in mystery. If you're looking for a cut-and-dried module, this one might disappoint; if you're looking for one rich in atmosphere and spooky enigmas, this one can't be beat.

4. Dwellers of the Forbidden City

This is a perfect example of a module I rank more highly than it probably would deserve, if I were making my judgments solely on the basis of design. As published, Dwellers of the Forbidden City is rough in places, even to the point of feeling incomplete. However, almost everything that is there is wonderfully evocative, from the mongrelmen to the aboleth to city itself and, of course, the despicable yuan-ti. The module is a terrific stew of ideas. David Cook clearly drank deeply from the same well as Tom Moldvay had when he wrote The Lost City, but each one feels unique. Also like The Lost City, Cook deliberately leaves many aspects of the city to the referee to develop on his own. One could easily spend months adventuring in and around the locales described here before exhausting their possibilities. That's just what I did and it's because of my fond memories of those times that I rank the module so high/

3. Vault of the Drow

Fans of old school D&D tend to praise the G-D-Q series of modules more than they deserve. The giants modules are all solid, but, at base, they're all glorified dungeon crawls. Modules D1 and D2, especially the latter, are better, but they still somehow fall short of the promise implied by the appearance of the dark elves at the end of Hall of the Fire Giant King. Conversely, Vault of the Drow exceeds my expectations. Not only does it contain some of the finest examples of High Gygaxian prose ever penned by the Dungeon Master, the titular vault is a truly remarkable adventuring locale. Though filled with all manner of chaotic evil villainy, the characters are not expected to lay siege to the place. Instead, they must find a way to navigate its eerily-lit streets and warring factions to achieve their goals. It's an unusual adventure in an unusual locale and I love it.

2. Tomb of Horrors 

You can be forgiven if you expected that this 1980 module would have been at the top of my list. Tomb of Horrors is indeed a fine module. It's likely the most famous of all D&D modules, simply because of its reputation for being the king of killer dungeons. However, it's precisely for that reason that I can't give it the number one spot on my list, no matter how highly I regard it. Unlike most of the other modules on this list, the Tomb doesn't have a lot of potential as a campaign locale to which the characters can return again and again. It's more or less a one-and-done kind of place, albeit one that may claim the lives of many characters before it's finally "beaten." On the other hand, the insidious cleverness of its many tricks and traps can never be beaten. This is a masterclass on how to present a challenging dungeon almost entirely bereft of monsters. Sure, it doesn't play entirely fair and some of its features are downright mean, but then that's the point, isn't it?

1. The Village of Hommlet

Simply put, this is the module that makes me want to play Dungeons & Dragons. Firstly, it's a low-level adventure, perfect for kicking off a new campaign and who doesn't love the promise of a new campaign? Secondly, Hommlet itself is a delightfully detailed little village, inhabited by charming (and secretly sinister) NPCs. Thirdly, the Moathouse pretty much embodies the "perfect dungeon" for me, containing as it does just the right mix of elements to excite my imagination. Finally, the backstory of the adventure – the rise and fall of the Temple of Elemental Evil – does a great job of not only providing context for the module itself but also propels the campaign toward bigger, looming threats. In short, The Village of Hommlet is, to my mind, a near-ideal first adventure module for both inexperienced and experienced referees and players alike. I love it.


  1. I would put Secret of Bone Hill, The Sentinel, and The Gauntlet on my list, but probably because I owned them and ran them a lot.

    1. Nostalgia and actual use count for a lot. I'd have a hard time leaving Shrine of the Kuo-Toa off my list for the same reason despite the module as written being kind of middling quality. My first run through D2 saw the whole G-D-Q plotline derail entirely and the party spent over a year of weekly-ish sessions mucking about with fishmen and Underdark politics. Fun times were had but the actual adventure itself didn't have much to do with that.

  2. I knew Dwellers had to be on there somewhere.

  3. I'm a little surprised that Bone Hill didn't make the list, though I think I can see why.

    1. Mostly, it's for lack of space. I had to narrow down my choices, so some worthy modules don't appear.

    2. That one's definitely somewhere in my top ten, but that list would change day to day anyway so maybe not top five.

    3. My own list would probably change day to day as well, making a top 10 would pretty hard for me

  4. Put Dwellers on the Plateau of the Isle of Dredd and you get a wonderful sandbox.

    1. ....and you could put the shrine of Tamoachan in the Forbidden City...

    2. And put B4 near the village so they can start with low level adventure or two before heading into the hexcrawl.

    3. I really think TSR should have had a column in Dragon showing a new map that included four or five semi-related modules. Include a minimal backstory and a hexcrawl that uses encounters related to the modules and it could have been useful and sold produce.

  5. I got play more of these when they were new than the last batch, but I don't think any of them would make my own top ten. Maybe Vault of the Drow, which is my favorite of these five anyway. Definitely not Tomb of Horrors, a module I just cannot grok the appeal of at all.

  6. I don't agree with Tomb of Horrors as a top choice. While it's certainly an iconic adventure, I don't find anything particularly clever about it. Instead, I tend to see it as capricious and cruel. It's the sort of thing a mean-spirited DM would put together if he found out his players were getting too powerful & having too much fun. And while that might work for some groups, I think that publishing modules in this spirit ultimately encourages an antagonistic relationship between the players and the DM.

    1. Agreed! I would only run it with pre-gen characters for players who knew they were going into a death trap.

    2. >>I don't agree with Tomb of Horrors as a top choice. I tend to see it as capricious and cruel. It's the sort of thing a mean-spirited DM would put together if he found out his players were getting too powerful & having too much fun.<<

      That's precisely its point and why it's widely cherished, by its victims as much as "cruel" DMs.

      >>And while that might work for some groups, I think that publishing modules in this spirit ultimately encourages an antagonistic relationship between the players and the DM.<<

      That was never my experience back in the day, whether in my group or groups I knew of that played Tomb of Horrors. Players today admittedly are more likely to resent killer dungeons like ToH.

    3. I don't agree with Tomb of Horrors as a top choice. While it's certainly an iconic adventure, I don't find anything particularly clever about it. Instead, I tend to see it as capricious and cruel. It's the sort of thing a mean-spirited DM would put together if he found out his players were getting too powerful & having too much fun. And while that might work for some groups, I think that publishing modules in this spirit ultimately encourages an antagonistic relationship between the players and the DM.

      Totally agree. Instant-death-no-saving-throw-allowed traps are fine, but they must be detectable and solvable, otherwise they're no better than "rocks fall, everyone dies" DM fiat. Many of the traps in ToH are undetectable and/or their "solutions" are complete non-sequiturs.

      Even as a tournament module I can't see any value in it, because clever play won't help you when there is no logic behind how anything operates.

  7. second T1

    that is my fav, we played the crap out of it, using it as a base for years

  8. Interesting list. I'm so removed from my AD&D module running days that it would be hard to pick out modules. I'm not sure I ran any of the Golden Age modules (1974-1983 right?) after the Golden Age, and pretty much any D&D or AD&D module I've run since then was adapted to a different game system. But here's a stab at some memorable modules:

    G1 - Steading of the Hill Giant - the first TSR module I tried to run. I don't think we got very far in it.

    B1 - I'm not sure I ran this other than in an aborted attempt when one of the players had the module under the table, it definitely made an impression on me.

    T1 Village of Homlet - I ran this at MIT in my early days with the games club there (as a high school kid, not an MIT student). I remember a player running a Houri from White Dwarf.

    S2 White Plume Mountain - My run of this included Glen Blacow (of the 4 fold way fame) as a player and ended up being written up by him in The Wild Hunt after a PC polymorphed into an Ancient Huge Red Dragon in a 10' corridor and killed several PCs, maybe pushing some through the bubble into the volcano.

    S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks - I remember some of this, and I still have listings of some of the tech items in the magic shop my campaign had (ran by a GMPC).

    Not so memorable but I remember at least some level of running them:

    G2, G3, D1-D3, Q1, C1, B2, L1, S1, U1, X1

  9. I've been reading this blog for years, so I knew Hommlet would be #1.

    Again, I can't really argue with your choices ... these are all classics for a reason. My group loved Keep on the Borderlands and got tons of use out of it, at multiple character levels. One of my personal favourites is Night's Dark Terror (B10), which has so much detail (the background material, the weather charts, the humanoid ecology, and those great hand-drawn maps) that I just love. But it came out in 1986, so not technically from the Golden Age.

  10. Could you/Would you do a list of favorite non-D&D modules/published adventures? I'd be very curious to see which published adventures you remember fondly from Traveller, Gamma World, and other games.

  11. One strange thing about TSR's early publication schedule for modules -- they were almost all high level, save B1 and Village of Hommlett. It meant that DMs at the time were forced to either write their own stuff or look elsewhere. Elsewhere for me led to Judges Guild. Once I had Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower, I pretty much never ran TSR modules again.

  12. In Tharizdun, that battle with the humanoids in the beginning, I've ran that twice on its own as a one-shot.

    It's a brilliant set-up. Gygax entirely dispensed with the treasure zoo dungeon, instead drawing up a clever schedule of when the lower level inhabitants will respond to an attack on the temple. Assuming the party plus gnomes can defeat these waves of reinforcements, they'll find the lower levels mostly deserted.

    1. Yeah, it's a rare example of an early dungeon with very reactive inhabitants. Poke the beehive and the bees come swarming out rather than just sitting there.

  13. I agree with most of your top 10, but I would include B2 in the top 5 no question. I would chuck D3 to make room for B2, and I would put B4, X1 and X2 higher and I1 and S1 lower in the ranks.

    So for me:
    1. B2
    2. B4
    3. T1
    4. X1
    5. X2
    6. C1
    7. WG4
    8. S3
    9. I1
    10. S1

  14. What's fascinating is what didn't make the list!

    Keep on the Borderlands
    Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh
    Against the Cult of the Reptile God
    Shrine of the Kuo-Toa

    I can see why you had to limit it to TSR only. Caverns of Thracia, Dark Tower, Tegel Manor, The Lichway and others would make this task even more challenging.

    Great list!

    1. Uninteresting to include Judges Guild because Caverns of Thracia would top every list.

  15. Yes to T1!

    ...but also B2 as a great place to start your adventures.

  16. Sad that B2 didn't make the cut.
    I think this sort of list should be divided into three lists based on levels. Gygax really is the only one I can think of who made good high level modules. There are a number of 'decent' midlevels already on your list. And low levels while easier, there is just so much you can do to make things interesting.

  17. My Top 10 would be a bit different, but not much. However, despite being one man's subjective opinion, this group is pretty solid, James. I'm sure if you built it out to 30 it would include many folks' (other) favorites among its ranks.
    : )

  18. Reminds me of my first successful campaign from around 1985-86 that went something like:

    S1 (TPK against Acerak himself, but we didn’t regret a minute of it)

  19. T1 and D3 were expected from your past postings but WG4 was a nice surprise.

  20. Somewhat disappointed to see Tomb of Horrors making the top ten. It's a gimmick module in my opinion, and lacks quality.
    Can't really argue with the rest of the selections though the order would be different for me and I'd cut D3 and WG4 for N1 and I6.

  21. Interesting to see a few objections to D3. As a teen I would have agreed; I just didn't know how to run a module like that in my early years but now I'm with James. That module has appreciated in value for me more than any other. If I omitted Judges Guild modules from consideration, my list is:

    1. Tomb of Horrors
    2. The Lost City
    3. Castle Amber
    4. Vault of the Drow
    5. Village of Hommlet/Temple of EE
    6. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
    7. Isle of Dread
    8. Keep on the Borderlands
    9. Beyond the Crystal Cave
    10. Shrine of the Kuo-Toa

    1. Agree with your placement of Lost City much higher on the list. It's a real gem.

  22. Very disappointed White Plume Mountain didn't make your cut. I loved it as a player in the 80s and still love it now. That's the module that makes me want to play D&D.

    1. I loved that module in the 80s too, it was one of my five favorites. For some reason it hasn't aged well. Nowadays it's not even in my top 20. Go figure.

  23. Can we look forward to similar (though maybe shorter) lists for the silver and the succeeding ages?