Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Retrospective: Midnight on Dagger Alley

In my scheme of the broad history of Dungeons & Dragons, the year 1984 falls either at the start of the Silver Age of the game or toward the end of the transitional period of the Electrum Age. Regardless of where one places it – or indeed if one even accepts the idea of neatly defined historical "ages" – I think it's indisputable that 1984 marks the year when TSR fully committed itself to taking D&D in new directions. This was the year that Dragonlance series launched, the first adventure modules based on other media properties appeared, the Companion Rules were published – and when TSR expanded the experimentation with solo play begun in the previous year.

During 1984, TSR published no fewer than four solo adventures, the majority of which were designed for use with the Basic and Expert rules sets (no surprise, given how well they were apparently selling at the time). The only one written with AD&D in mind was Midnight on Dagger Alley by Merle M. Rasmussen, best known as the creator of Top Secret. The module is the first solitaire "magic viewer modules," so called because it makes use of a strip of transparent red film to read text and maps that have been printed in such a way as to be otherwise illegible. It's a clever solution to the problem posed by the invisible ink modules released in 1983: ensuring re-playability. Unlike its predecessors, Midnight on Dagger Alley is presented in such a way that it can be used multiple times. However, it would seem that the module was not all that well received among potential customers, as TSR never produced another adventure like it.

A player of the module chooses one of three pre-generated characters, a lawful neutral human monk, a neutral evil half-elf assassin, or a neutral elf thief. Two things immediately stand out about these characters, beyond the fact that they are all level six. The first is that they all possess thieving abilities to some degree. The second is that none of them have a good alignment (and indeed one of them is explicitly evil). This surprises me in retrospect, since the Silver Age is when TSR began to worry about "angry mothers from heck" and how they viewed the content of Dungeons & Dragons. In this context, Midnight on Dagger Alley a little like a throwback to the pulp fantasy roots of the game.  

Each character has his own unique task in the city of Goldstar, where the module is set. The text of the module is divided into four parts, each associated with a different part of the city: dungeon, street, upper level, and roof. Each part contains numbered entries whose text is (mostly) illegible due to be hidden underneath printed patterns that only disappear with the use of the magic viewer. There are also maps of the relevant parts of the city that function in the same way. Much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, the player of Midnight on Dagger Alley movies between entries by making choices that direct him to other entries. And much like the Fighting Fantasy series – and, of course, D&D itself – there are dice to be rolled, for combat among others, that also play a roll in advancing through the entries.

I owned a copy of this as a teenager and had a surprisingly good time with it. My main complaint about it was that it was quite short – only eight pages in length – and the three scenarios associated with the pre-generated characters all took place within a very limited space of the city. That was clearly done for logistical reasons and, having tried my hand at writing a solitaire adventure or two over the years, I am sympathetic to Rasmussen's plight. Still, there are only about 120 entries in total, most of them quite short, so the range of action is indeed quite limited and that's a genuine drawback. On the other hand, I appreciate what Rasmussen and TSR were attempting to achieve with Midnight on Dagger Alley, even if their reach exceeded their grasp.


  1. Ah, yes, I remember TSR's attempts at solo adventures--the invisible ink modules, Blizzard Pass, and Maze of the Riddling Minotaur weren't terrible, but was the concern of player cheating so great that they had to go to the lengths of making the entries invisible? Was that the point? It didn't make sense. Needless to say, the obvious thing happened to me, and as I reached the last of the entries in Blizzard Pass, the ultimate conclusion, the resolution where I stick it to the bad guy, the culmination of my efforts, IT happened. The bloody pen ran out of ink!

    I had to wait 15 years for the internet to be invented before I was able to read the last of the adventure and finish the game. My enthusiasm for such had dampened by then.

    Maze of the Riddling Minotaur came with an invisible ink pen as fat as your arm, so I guess the word got out to TSR that the skinny pens in BP didn't do the trick.

    Then, I remember Ghost of Lion Castle, an uninspired effort that totally failed, but at least it had no invisible entries needing an ink pen to read.

    Next, along came Lathan's Gold. Tedious and bland, nothing original at all there, with charts to consult. Charts for a solo? Charts? C'mon, man!

    And this brings me to Midnight on Dagger Alley, with its secret entries revealed by gazing through red tape, or as they called it, the "Magic Viewer." Here then is my comprehensive review of MoDA ... "Total and complete RUBBISH," the worst of a bad lot.

    When it comes to these solo adventures, two series come to mind that nailed it, got it right from the start. Fighting Fantasy and the first five books in Joe Dever's Lone Wolf series. Both were fantastic!

    And I'll conclude with a word to anyone, an individual or a massive corporation, that wants to publish solo-player gamebooks. You don't need invisible ink pens. You don't need magic red tape. You don't need charts, and tables and the table-flipping and chart consulting that comes with it. You don't need to direct players to an appendix in the back of the book. All you need is one simple thing and that mysterious thing that seems to elude many is ...

    GREAT WRITING!!!!! See Fighting Fantasy. See Lone Wolf.

  2. I actually used this module relatively recently for a 5E group I was running, making it a small settlement stranded in the mists of Ravenloft. My group had a ton of fun using the magic viewer to navigate!

  3. 120 entries does seem a bit anaemic; the FF books had 400 as standard, sometimes going higher.

  4. My dad had this, I think its the only adventure he had. I recently borrowed it and played around with it just walking around getting into trouble. It was pretty fun.

    I feel like it could be the base for something bigger, especially now with computers that could handle all the DM stuff, since it's limited to bringing up prompts basically ( plus it's easier to drip feed information than with the magic eye viewer that's for sure).

  5. I bought this when it came out but I don't think I ever played it. I was not running D&D at the time and I guess I figured it would be fun to have when I couldn't get together with my group for whatever we were playing.

    Thanks to many regrettable purchases in 83-84, TSR had totally gone off the rails as far as I was concerned, and I could "no longer take them seriously" as a game company. LOL @ mystupidyoungerself. MODA may have been the last product I purchased from them until 1986 when a chance encounter in a Toys R Us shopping for a Bday present had me leave with a copy of Unearthed Arcana and Adventures in Blackmoor- both bought on name recognition only, and also highly regrettable purchases.

    Back to MODA- I'm sure that TSR was trying it's hardest to differentiate it's solo adventures from the Tunnels & Trolls and Fighting Fantasy products that were so well regarded by fans. Using "gimmicks" like the magic viewer, and "yes & no"* pens was a poor way to go about it though.

    * How I loved those old "Yes & No" invisible ink game books.

  6. There's a more recent addition to this genre in the form of Legendary Kingdoms by Spidermin Games. My son and I have played it (and vol 2) and have really enjoyed it.

    It's basically a choose your own adventure with dice rolling for combat and skill trials - kind of like those old D&D CYOA by Steve Jackson games back in the day..

  7. Rather than the solo modules, I wish that TSR had published more polished guide to generating solo random dungeons. I like playing 4 Against Darkness but it is bit limited (but easily modified) and think that the random dungeons in the DMG are clunky to use on the hoof.